Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Singer, 14, to soften pain of war

'Congo's Justin Bieber' to mentor child soldiers

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In the midst of the poverty, gunfights and chaos, a Winnipeg music producer trying to help reform child soldiers in Congo has found a strong ally in a young Congolese celebrity.

Congo's Justin Bieber.

The 14-year-old boy named Innocent Balume won a Congo Idol contest in the capital, Kinshasa, and now lives in hiding, said Darcy Ataman.

"He's so famous he's in danger," said Ataman, whose Song for Africa organization is working with Sen. Romeo Dallaire's Child Soldiers Initiative to rehabilitate the young fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On his second visit to Goma, an eastern Congolese city, Ataman met radio announcers who introduced him to Innocent. They led him down dark alleys and through fences and barbed wire to meet the teen who fears for his life in Goma more than most kids there.

"People try to kidnap him," said Ataman. Innocent can't leave his home to go outside to play or go to school. "He's like Michael Jackson was without the money."

Actor Ben Affleck heard about Innocent's plight and has helped the boy financially, said Ataman. Innocent gets tutored at home and writes songs to deal with his fame and isolation. Ataman has recruited the talented young singer-songwriter to mentor the child soldiers.

"This boy is amazing." And he will be safe when he helps out at the transit centre for the rehabilitation centre of child soldiers in a United Nations compound, Ataman said.

Visitors to the centre can't give the children anything, take close-up pictures or ask about their past, he said. That could retraumatize a child who didn't want to fight in the first place, said Ataman. He recalled the story of one boy who jumped at what he thought was an odd job.

"One kid is walking to school and asked to help load lumber in a truck. He was kidnapped and within two weeks he was fighting." The boy ended up at the transit centre for child soldiers four times before returning to his community, said Ataman.

The UN is hoping that recording music will be fun and hold the child soldiers' interest long enough to become a vehicle for change, he said.

It will take time. Kids get used to the adrenaline rush of fighting and looting to survive, he said. They're brainwashed with witchcraft and told wearing white paint makes them invincible, said Ataman. Most feel they have no other options. "They've been forced to kill their own parents so they have no one to go home to. They feel so guilty they wouldn't want to go back to their village."

The 11- to 17-year-olds can stay only three months at the child soldier transit centre so they don't become institutionalized, he said.

At Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, another eastern Congolese city, girls and women can spend up to two years recovering from surgery and childbirth after the war's vicious rapes and brutality, said Ataman.

In January, he's returning to Africa to set up music recording studios at three sites -- one in Rwanda and two in Congo -- at the UN child soldier transit centre and Panzi hospital. Ataman's Song for Africa organization is working with the Global College at the University of Winnipeg to set up the programming.

In Africa, he's dealing with non-governmental organizations and staff fed up with visitors making promises they don't keep, wasting their time and exploiting the situation. They like the Song for Africa program, and are assisting now that he's proven he is sticking around to get it done.

"They're so tired of celebrities coming in to take photos," said Ataman. They've seen a steady stream of people who've come to cash in on the cachet of being connected to a good cause.

"They call it the poverty safari," said Ataman. Those safari-goers make it hard for the people prepared to invest time and money to stay and help NGOs in a conflict zone, he said.

"These are very busy people who deal with life and death every day."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 11, 2011 A4

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