CHILDREN have been spotted marching in formation in eastern Congo in the past week, as the recruitment of youngsters by militia forces reaches critical levels, a report from Save the Children said.
"The situation for children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is catastrophic. Fighters from all sides are using children as frontline fodder," said Hussein Mursal, the Congo director for the international charity.
Fighting in eastern Congo has escalated dramatically since August, as rival rebel groups clash over the forested territory. Boys and girls are being recruited in record numbers to act as soldiers, porters, spies and sex slaves, the London-based charity said.
Those who have managed to escape have told the aid organisation they were held captive in small holes in the ground. Schools have been targeted as "rich recruitment" spots, the charity said.
Because the conflict continues to escalate, the charity, which has provided refuge to 800 child fighters this year, has not been able to return the children to their homes. It noted that "the risk of re-recruitment and physical danger from the war are so high".
An estimated 800,000 people have fled their homes this year in eastern Congo, a region that shares a border with Rwanda. The area has been racked by violence for years, despite the end of a five-year war in 2002.
The conflict is fuelled in part by the region's proximity to Rwanda. Rebels accused of orchestrating Rwanda's 1994 genocide operate from eastern Congo.
One of those, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, is among the most active recruiters of child soldiers, according to a UN report.