GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- The soccer field sits atop a bed of broken lava rocks, and most boys play barefoot or in flip-flops because they have no shoes. Volleyball matches in the same yard ended when a jagged stone punctured the ball.
But the rough ground doesn't distract a dozen boys from the simple pleasure of a good game. They laugh, tumble, and wrestle for the ball amid a spray of black rock and dust. Their only job at this makeshift camp in northeastern Congo is to act like children -- and try to forget a past of guns, war, beatings, and rape.
''I never chose that life," said former child soldier Mandevu Mujambo, a rail-thin 16-year-old who was abducted six years ago by the Congolese Rally for Democracy a Rwanda-backed militia that was battling government forces. ''They killed my father and brothers and forced me to fight."
By the time he was 11, Mandevu said, he had become a killing machine. ''I can't even tell you how many people I've killed," he said. ''So many. I was one of their best shooters."
His militia service ended when his commander shot Mandevu in a fit of rage, permanently crippling the boy. He was rescued by hospital authorities and brought to this transit center in the city of Goma, one of several dozen halfway houses set up to help traumatized Congolese children rejoin society.
Mandevu is one of about 35,000 children who were forced to become fighters over the past decade in Congo, a nation racked by civil war and regional conflicts. Ethnic-based militias continue to challenge the transitional government, which took power in 2003 after a fragile peace deal officially ended what is known as Africa's First World War.
Under international pressure to halt the use of child soldiers, the country, formerly known as Zaire, has demobilized an estimated 11,000 young people, leaving as many as 24,000 still trapped in servitude to one of the dozen major armed groups in the northeast. Despite a government ban, even the national army continues to recruit young people.
The government has launched a public awareness campaign against the use of child soldiers. ''But as far as I know, no one has ever been punished for using a child soldier," said Bernard Kitambala, manager of child protection officers at UNICEF's Goma office.