Nine years after Burasa Kuzungu was forced to join the Forces Démocratiques de la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and become a child soldier, he managed to elude his captors and escape into the forest.
“I crawled along the ground like an animal,” Kuzunga, now 18, said. “I used night as a shield and the tactics the FDLR taught me to get away from them.”
He finally made it to the Goma offices of the UN Mission in Congo, MONUC, and was repatriated to his homeland Rwanda, where he was taken to the government-run Muhazi demobilisation centre near the capital Kigali.
UN estimates say tens of thousands of children have been abducted and forcibly recruited into various armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Many were Rwandans whose parents fled to Congo after the 1994 slaughter of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu militias.
At the Muhazi centre, former child soldiers are encouraged to talk about their time with the rebel groups and coached to behave like other children their age.
“When they are with the armed groups in the forest, they are brutal, they are aggressive,” Ally Mugema, a social worker at Muhazi told IRIN. “After a long period in this kind of environment, they have become conditioned and cannot go back into the community behaving that way.”
Muhazi was set up by the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission (RDRC) to manage and implement the government’s programme for ex-combatants.
The RDRC aims “to ensure that all the demobilised ex-combatants are socially and economically reintegrated successfully into their communities”. The commission aims to provide extensive reintegration assistance in the form of formal education, income-generating activities or vocational training.
Most of the boys at Muhazi spend about three months at the centre while the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) searches for their families.
They are taught to read and write, and receive lessons in personal hygiene such as brushing their teeth and washing their own clothes. Those who are severely traumatised undergo extensive counselling.
A 2006 Save the Children report says that many child soldiers are coerced into "volunteering", forced to commit atrocities as military training before being deployed on the front lines.
When they escape or are released, they may be rejected by society, refused access to school, and find it impossible to re-enter 'normal' life.
Save the Children protection advisor Johanna MacVeigh said: "Being recruited by armed forces has a devastating effect on children's lives. They are immersed in violence, are subject to terrible abuse and are forced to forfeit love, play, education and hope.”
Psychologists say former child soldiers can suffer from a number of mental health problems, most prominently post-traumatic stress disorder, which develops after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal.
Difficulties resulting from the sudden change from civilian life to that of a soldier and then back again sometimes cause "adjustment disorder". Meanwhile, personality disorders, eating disorders and depression are also identified as common after-effects among children who have served as combatants.
While many of the children display a remarkable resilience, counsellors at Muhazi said one of the biggest challenges was undoing the indoctrination of prejudice.
Boys who have escaped the FDLR, a Hutu militia which has links to the perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, told IRIN that propaganda sessions with their former captors were commonplace.
“I was told that there are Hutus and there are Tutsis and that the Tutsis were different.
They had a longer nose, and Hutus had a flatter nose. It made no sense though,” Kazungu said.
In the run-up to the genocide, there was a media campaign to dehumanise Tutsis, who were described as “cockroaches” in government-controlled radio and news broadcasts.
Many of the Muhazi boys said they eventually lost faith in the ideologies being taught and saw through the “lies”.
“They told me that if I came back to Rwanda, I would be killed,” 17-year-old Harinda Kamari said. “I finally said if they are going to kill me, let them kill me; and I came home.”
But for younger boys in particular, recruitment into armed groups often offers an opportunity to flee from domestic problems.
Nine-year-old Tushimi Emmanuel said an FDLR lieutenant rescued him from the home of an abusive guardian, a woman who once pushed him into a fire.
Emmanuel, who has the scars from severe burns along the length of his left arm, says he lived in the lieutenant’s home and was cared for by the man’s wife.
Despite his gratitude at escaping the abuse, the boy soon tired of the FDLR’s activities.
“I was watching the FDLR beating people up, harassing people all the time,” he said. “I told the second lieutenant that I wanted to leave. I was of no use to them. They took me to a civilian man outside the village. I told that man that I wanted to go home to Rwanda. He handed me over to MONUC and I was brought here.”
Thirteen-year-old Habimana joined the Mayi Mayi after his father died. He had no place to go and was often beaten as he wandered the streets. The militia provided him with security.
The Mayi Mayi was initially a civilian defence force formed to protect Congolese communities from Rwandan invaders tracking down genocide fugitives. It splintered into fierce militias and has been widely accused of raping, looting and banditry.
Habimana served as the armed guard to a captain until he was shot in the arm in October by bandits.
The Mayi Mayi brought him to a hospital in Goma where doctors turned him over to the ICRC.
Habimana had been at Muhazi for less than a week. He spent much of his time alone, looking out at the lake and avoiding the company of other boys.
Counsellors and former child soldiers say it may be a slow process for Habimana to adjust to his new life.
But, they say, things will certainly improve.
“The life here is very different from the life in Congo,” Kuzungu said. “We no longer hear the sound of guns. We are free.”