(Kinshasa) – The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should increase protection for students and schools in areas of the country affected by armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The government should endorse and carry out the international Safe Schools Declaration.

The 58-page report, “‘Our School Became the Battlefield’: Using Schools for Child Recruitment and Military Purposes in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo,” documents how armed groups have attacked schools and recruited children at school or while on their way to school. Armed groups and the Congolese army have also taken over schools for military purposes. Many children and parents told Human Rights Watch that fear of being abducted or raped kept students from attending school.

A Congolese rebel fighter walks through an abandoned classroom that had been used as an armory by the Congolese army in Bunagana, a town the rebels overran near the Ugandan border, July 7, 2012. 

“Children’s access to education is more often a fight than a right in many parts of Congo,” said Bede Sheppard, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Keeping students safely in school should be at the heart of efforts to build durable peace in Congo.”

The report is based on interviews with more than 120 people, including students, teachers, and Education Ministry and United Nations officials based in North and South Kivu provinces, in eastern Congo, where there has been ongoing conflict.

Children’s access to education is more often a fight than a right in many parts of Congo. Keeping students safely in school should be at the heart of efforts to build durable peace in Congo.

Bede Sheppard

Deputy Children’s Rights Director

“When a fighter knocks on the classroom door, you have to answer,” a teacher told Human Rights Watch, describing how a fighter abducted a student. “He asked for a girl student. I couldn’t refuse. So I called the girl he named, and she went with him. He didn’t have a gun, but his escorts were behind him, and they had guns.”

The Congolese government should respond to UN Security Council Resolution 2225, of 2015, which encourages all countries to take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools, Human Rights Watch said. It should promptly join the international Safe Schools Declaration, endorsed by 49 countries as of October, which includes commitments to protect education from attack. It should also review its military policies, practices, and training to ensure that they, at a minimum, conform to protections in the “Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict,” which provide guidance on how parties to armed conflict should avoid impinging on students’ safety and education.

The Congolese government should also investigate and hold to account army officers and armed group commanders responsible for recruiting and abducting children and for other violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including unlawful attacks on schools, students, and teachers, Human Rights Watch said.

Munitions removed from the latrines at the Institut Bweremana in Minova, South Kivu province, in June 2013. Altogether, nine 107mm rockets, two boxes of AK-47 ammunition, and two recoilless rockets were found. The Congolese army had previously occupied this school and at least 41 others in the area in late 2012.

Attacks on schools and their use for military purposes by fighters rose sharply in early 2012, when the Congolese army opened a military campaign against the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. The 19-month rebellion ended in November 2013, after the Congolese army and UN forces defeated the M23. However, the M23’s defeat did not bring about the end of hostilities in North and South Kivu, as many other armed groups continue to operate in these provinces.

One resident explained the situation at his local school: “The first time the M23 came to attack, the FARDC [Congolese Army] had occupied our school. And when the FARDC had been driven out by the M23, then the M23 also occupied our school. Our school became the battlefield.”

When warring parties use schools for military purposes, they sometimes take over a few classrooms or the playground. In other situations, fighters convert an entire school into a military base, barracks, training grounds, or weapons and ammunition storage. Troops occupying schools expose students and teachers to risks such as unlawful recruitment, forced labor, beatings, and sexual violence.

The military use of schools deteriorates, damages, and destroys already insufficient and poor-quality education infrastructure. Fighters who occupy schools frequently burn the buildings’ wooden walls, desks, chairs, and books for cooking and heating fuel. Tin roofs and other materials may be looted and carted off to be sold for soldiers’ personal gain.

The use of a school for military deployments can result in additional damage to the building because it may make the school a legitimate target for enemy attack. Even once vacated, the school may still be a dangerous environment for children if troops leave behind weapons and unused munitions.

In a country that already suffers from inadequate opportunities for quality education, damage to schools due to military use further hampers students’ educational prospects and their futures, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch documented attacks on schools or the use of schools for military purposes between 2012 and 2014 by the Congolese army, the M23, various Congolese Hutu militia groups known as the Nyatura, Mai Mai Sheka, and other Mai Mai groups, and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération de Rwanda, FDLR).

Throughout Congo in 2013 and 2014, the UN verified attacks on schools, looting of schools, or military use of schools by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), the Congolese army, the FDLR, the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI), M23, Mai Mai LaFontaine, Mai Mai Yakutumba, Nyatura groups, the People’s Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo (Alliance du peuple pour un Congo libre et souverain, APCLS), the Raia Mutomboki, and the Union of Congolese Patriots for Peace (Union des patriotes congolais pour la paix, UPCP).

In early 2013, Congo’s defense minister issued a ministerial directive to the army stating that all military personnel found guilty of requisitioning schools for military purposes would face severe criminal and disciplinary sanctions. However, Human Rights Watch has not found any existing Congolese legislation or military doctrine that explicitly prohibits or regulates the practice of military use of schools, or makes it a criminal offense.

“Parents throughout Congo repeatedly demonstrate the value they place on their children receiving an education, scraping together the resources to pay fees and other costs necessary to enroll their children,” Sheppard said. “Nothing less than the future development and stability of eastern Congo depends on the government making schools a safer place for children to receive a quality education.”