KINDU, Congo -- Despite two pregnancies, three years of marriage and months of trudging through the jungle behind her husband, Anifa still has the smooth face and sweet, high voice of a child. But when the subject turns to her tumultuous life, she summons a steady poise unusual for a girl of 16.
"I was too young, but it was my destiny," she said, smiling shyly as she recalled her wartime wedding at an age when most girls in more peaceful places would be finishing elementary school.
No, Anifa tells all those who ask, she was not raped or pressed into sexual slavery. She simply fell in love with a teenage soldier named Juma and, after an intense two-week courtship, became an army wife.
Now, with the war behind them -- it ended officially with a peace deal in 2002, though violence has continued in parts of the country -- Anifa wants nothing more than to move to her husband's village and start a proper home.
Until recently, Anifa's story would have drawn sad, skeptical looks from the aid workers who are helping Congolese youths return home after years of being caught up in a complex conflict involving local militias and armies from Congo and several neighboring countries.
The workers knew that sexual violence against women and girls had been used as a humiliating tactic by fighters on all sides. They assumed that most girls in Anifa's position had been raped but didn't want to admit it because of the deep cultural stigma attached to such an assault.
But at the gentle insistence of Anifa and other girls, a more complex picture has begun to emerge: Amid the epidemic of rapes, it turned out that at least a few teenagers willingly became war brides rather than be left behind in devastated villages. They followed their gun-toting husbands, walking miles at a time to keep up with a fluid front line. They cooked meals, kept makeshift homes, got pregnant and, occasionally, found love in the bleakest conditions imaginable.
"We are happy," said Anifa, whose belly was bulging with the couple's second child. The first had died in infancy, a common occurrence in this ravaged central African nation. "We have household problems sometimes, but we are happy."
She spoke softly, sitting in a dingy, dirt-floor room of a boarding house opened last month by CARE, an Atlanta-based international aid group. Juma, 17, was in a separate and much larger facility for former child soldiers on the other side of the Congo River. It was agreed, at the request of CARE, not to publish their last names.
In a separate interview, Juma gave much the same account of the youthful marriage. He said he shared Anifa's desire to move back to his village and start a home together. Their near-total lack of formal education, clothes or household possessions, he said, would be only a temporary barrier to the family life they imagined for themselves.
When discussing his time as a soldier, Juma expressed no remorse for his role in a conflict that killed millions, destroyed countless villages and made a poor nation even more miserable. "It was the war," he said. "That means people must die."
But when he spoke of Anifa, Juma revealed a warm smile. His only regret, he said, was that he was unable to provide six goats for her father, the key transaction sealing marriages here. In the madness of the time, the two simply ran off together. He betrayed no doubts about the relationship.
"She's my wife," said Juma, who after five years as a soldier has a hint of a mustache and the lean, undeveloped look of a junior varsity athlete. "I love her."
The open-air camp where Juma lives is the size of a football field, with tents made of plastic sheeting, a rudimentary classroom and wooden frames as beds. Since it opened a year ago, more than 1,400 child soldiers, some as young as 8 or 9, have passed through while arrangements were made for their return home. They receive food and basic schooling but little else.