DR Congo's former child fighters trapped in a twilight zone
Hundreds of former child fighters in Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile Kasai region face an uncertain future, spurned by their families and their dreams brutally shattered.
Antho Panu, a 17-year-old, remembers the day when Kamwina Nsapu militia came to her village to recruit fighters to battle government soldiers.
"After the war, we will build a house for your parents. You will have a better life when we win the war," one of them told her.
"I wanted to make my parents happy so I accepted," Panu told AFP. "We went to enrol -- me, my brother and a neighbourhood friend.
"There were some initiation rites and then we became Kamwina Nsapu fighters," the smiling and plump adolescent said, speaking in Tshiluba, the main language in Kasai.
The vast Kasai region plunged into violence in September 2016, a month after government troops killed an influential local chieftain, Kamwina Nsapu, who was opposed to the government in Kinshasa.
The militia, which also goes by the same name, took in children as fighters. The unrest has claimed more than 3,380 lives and displaced at least 1.4 million people, according to the Catholic church.
The escalating crisis has spurred efforts to raise funds for humanitarian aid for DR Congo, a mineral-rich yet deeply poor and chronically unstable country.
Donors meeting in Geneva on Friday pledged $528 million (428 million euros) -- a major step, but still less than a quarter of the $2.2 billion that the UN says is needed to help people in the DRC and hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad.
- Ordeal by fire -
Panu's parents didn't want her to go but eventually gave in.
Like many other girls, she was sent to the front line.
"The first time we went to fight the soldiers, several of us were killed," Panu said.
Panu said she and her peers wore traditional magic fetishes that they believed would protect them.
"We served as shields for the fighters. I was never hit by a bullet because I respected the taboos: I did not eat meat or certain vegetables and I also shunned oil that had been used for frying," she said.
But she left their ranks when she learned that army soldiers were rounding up children who were fighting alongside militiamen.
Panu returned to her family. A sister took her in and then made her go to a priest who stripped off her magic charms.
She dreams of joining a music school and "becoming a big artist."
"This time around, I want to earn my living properly and not harm anyone. I want to please my parents," she said.
- 'Just want to be normal' -
But Angele, also 17, whose full name was withheld, was not so lucky.
A soldier's daughter, she left the militia last year and went to live with her uncle and aunt.
"My aunt always regarded me as a criminal. She always said she didn't want a fighter in the house," Angele said.
"I just want to become the normal girl I used to be," she said in a quavering voice. "I want people to see me as just a girl and love me like they used to."
About 500 child soldiers -- 93 of them girls -- have left the militia since April last year and registered with the UNICEF-supported National Catholic Child Association (BNCE) in Kananga, a major city in Kasai.
Housed at the centre, many children show signs of trauma and have behavioural problems including aggression, panic attacks, insomnia and bouts of crying, said Rebecca, a woman working at the centre.
"We provide therapy on a case-by-case basis," she said.
Some children are still being tracked by the authorities, according to the BNCE. Kasai prosecutors for instance want to jail 11 ex-child fighters who had been released from custody, it said.
Djikenga Ilungu said he had been recruited by force and escaped when he learnt that "NGOs were asking children to leave" the Kamwina Nsapu.
"We've done and seen horrible things -- killed people, seen others die. It was really very difficult. I now hope to learn tailoring and want a normal life and to be accepted by others," the 17-year-old said.