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In Congo, Love Born in Wartime Grows in Peace

There are no similar plans for a facility for girls. An estimated 200 in this area have escaped by themselves, finding their own way home. CARE offers them resettlement services from a central office in this riverside town, which has a tiny main street and a large contingent of U.N. peacekeepers and aid groups.

But last month, the Congolese army formally released 10 girls along with their child-soldier husbands. There was nowhere to house them or the babies they brought along.

At first, the aid workers were surprised to learn that the teenage brides wanted to stay with the child soldiers they regarded as husbands. Yet the more the workers talked with the girls and considered their situations -- far from home, often with children to raise -- the more they came to view the youthful war marriages as worthy of preserving.

CARE officials now estimate that there are thousands of such unions in the sweltering lowlands around Kindu.

"Of course they are too young. But in these communities, too young depends on where you are," said Diedonne Cirhigiri, head of CARE's child-soldier demobilization program in Kindu.

Anifa, whose hair is braided into two dozen spikes, guesses she was 12 or 13 when Juma's militia came to her village and set up camp near her home. She was the 11th of 12 children, and her mother had died years earlier. When Juma's militia moved on, Anifa followed him.

Eight months later, from a village many miles away, the couple called Anifa's father, who was angry about her disappearance but made no effort to dissuade her from staying with Juma, she said. Instead, her father traveled to visit them and collected some cloth and a bit of money as a down payment on his daughter's bride price.

The young couple spent the next few years trudging through the dense Congolese jungle, moving from battle to battle. Juma has few skills suitable for peacetime employment, but he plans to work the fields in his home village to support his young family.

"I am a man," he said. "I will look for money to raise my child."

There are some other expenses Juma hopes to settle before his family can make a proper beginning to their new lives: He wants a wedding ring for Anifa. And to make the marriage official in the eyes of Anifa's family, he plans to buy her father those goats.

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