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By Ann Curry
NBC News
updated 8/29/2008 6:48:04 PM ET 2008-08-29T22:48:04

The image of two teenage boys playing serenely is a picture of peace uncommon in eastern Congo — and deceptive. Because it masks some of the worst horrors of a vicious ethnic war for land and resources — a war often fought with children.

Just nine months ago, Gabriel and Pascal were playing cat and mouse in the jungles of central Africa – enemies trying to kill each other. But they discovered they were two helpless pawns in a decade-old conflict, and became kindred spirits after separate, hellish journeys.

Two years ago Gabriel Gakara was a regular 14 year-old living in a small village on the edge of a war zone. He played with his brothers and sisters and dreamed of becoming a mechanic. But his life took a dangerous turn toward the edge of despair one day as he sat in a place he thought was safe – his village school.

Ann Curry: What happened?

Gabriel: We were studying when soldiers came into the school and took us from our classroom.

The soldiers took Gabriel and seven of his classmates – some 20 children in all from the area that day – and turned them into new recruits for a notorious rebel commander. Gabriel's first duty was as a gofer for the camp cook.

Gabriel: I had to sleep outside and carry heavy loads.

He says he was ordered to steal food and supplies from nearby villages, and transport ammunition and weapons — under a brutal daily regime. If he dared to play with other child soldiers or tried to leave his unit he risked severe punishment. Children were often beaten, he says, sometimes with a hundred lashes. And he had no way of contacting his family, unaware they were even alive, or if his siblings had also been taken in by armed groups. Video: Covering the war in Eastern Congo

After just three weeks, Gabriel trained to use an automatic rifle and was dispatched to the front lines of combat.

Curry: You are still just a child but you were even younger then. How frightened were you?

Gabriel: When you see someone killed right beside you, you think, "I will also die like this." That made me really afraid.

He says at times the fighting was so chaotic, children switched sides in the heat of battle. While the military code they all observed was the law of the jungle: kill or be killed.

Gabriel: When you shoot someone in front of you and they die, you feel very afraid and you think: "If I was not a soldier I would not have to kill this person."

Curry: how many people do you think you might have killed?

Gabriel: Any time I saw enemy soldiers I had to shoot them. I do not know the number of people I have killed.

But those he did kill came back to haunt him.

Gabriel: I would dream about those who were killed and sometimes I would get up in the middle of the night and wonder what was happening to my life.

He says some of his friends were ordered to kill civilians. As hard as it was to carry out those orders, refusing was worse.

Gabriel: If the commander tells you to kill and you don't obey, they kill you because you are not respecting them.

Gabriel says there were about 1000 other child soldiers in his armed group. He remembers being forced to march 40 miles... And when some of the children couldn't keep up, they were shot. 

Curry: Did you see children who were soldiers with you shot by the commanders?

Gabriel: When the enemy attacked us and our commanders saw they were stronger than us, we would run away. if our commanders saw the children weren't running away fast enough and that the enemy might capture them, then they usually killed those children so that they would not give up information useful to the enemy.

Gabriel says he lost three close friends in battle. But one day last October, the fog of war gave him a lucky break.

Gabriel: When we attacked the government positions, the UN intervened with helicopter gunships and tanks. They scattered our forces. So I was able to escape. Video: Warlord or liberator?

Curry: What did it mean to you to finally escape?

Gabriel: For me it was like a deliverance. I escaped into the bush, went to the U.N. soldiers and handed over my weapon to them.

Gabriel was one of 30,000 children that fought for a while before being released from his army. In some areas, more than 50 percent of the children are re-taken into armed groups. Many cannot join their families, displaced by the war and others are forced to fend for themselves in hostile areas.

After nearly a year and a half on the front lines, Gabriel got lucky. He was taken to a center sponsored by the U.N., where he is cared for. He joined some 200 other boys from all sides of Congo's war - a war that has claimed more than 5 million lives.

He says at first he was afraid other boys in the center might try to kill him in the night.  And then, he came face to face with one of his enemies.

Pascal: It is possible I killed Gabriel's friends.

When Gabriel escaped from the rebel army in eastern Congo which had turned him into a killer, he was brought to a special center which helps child soldiers become children again. Here he was treated for post-traumatic stress, taught to set aside any loyalty to his former unit, and mixed with boys from enemy factions.

But he had no way of knowing he was about to meet a boy who had been trying to kill him. Like Gabriel – who'd been snatched from his classroom –  Pascal Kahombo was a village boy who lived with his family in poverty.

Pascal: My parents gave me everything they could. I loved to study, but they couldn't pay for me to go to school.

So at age thirteen, he says, he volunteered to join a local unit of the government's army on the promise he'd get 25 dollars a month.

Curry: Is that why you did it? Because you wanted the money?

Pascal: I wasn't really interested in the money. My family didn't have the means to send me to school so when I saw soldiers passing by, I thought, OK, maybe I can make something of myself as a soldier.

But he would never see any pay and immediately regretted his decision to sign up.

Pascal: When I enlisted, they ordered me to go on patrols, or guard different positions. Then they forced me to fight.

Curry: So you didn't have a choice? Video: Covering the war in Eastern Congo

Pascal: If you refused, you would be beaten, then put in jail.

Curry: But you must have feared being on the front lines?

Pascal: I was very afraid. Sometimes five of my unit could be killed, sometimes we all made it through. Whatever happens, I never want to be a soldier again.  When I was fighting I killed soldiers. Not civilians but soldiers, our enemies. And when I think about the people I have killed, I usually ask myself, what will happen to me?

Curry: Do you know how many might have died because you fired, because you had no choice?

Pascal: I cannot remember.

Cannot remember because Pascal was in so many battles. He was on the front lines for four years, four years away from his family, his childhood lost to the war. friends lost in battle too.

When his army unit finally released him, he was brought to the same center as Gabriel. The boys struck up a friendship after they learned they were from neighboring villages, and bonded over their experiences of war. But as they pieced together their lives as soldiers, they came to a realization almost too hard to comprehend. They had been fighting on opposing sides in the same the same times, in the same places. They were sure they had been fighting each other...pulled the triggers of their automatic weapons as they faced off.

Pascal: It is possible that I killed Gabriel's friends, and when he was shooting in my direction, that he killed my friends.

But Gabriel and Pascal did not seek revenge for what might have happened in the heat of battle. They know they are lucky to have survived.

Curry: How typical are these two boys?

Pernille: Unfortunately their stories are extremely typical.

Pernille Ironside is a child protection specialist for the U.N. in Congo and helps fund the center where the boys are cared for.

Pernille: More than thirty thousand kids have come out of various militia groups and armed forces since 2004. However, they're still being recruited.

Curry: People come to their houses and take the kids?

Pernille: Absolutely. Then they're put on the front lines and they hardly know even how to hold a weapon after only a few weeks of training. They've lost their childhood, they've been made to suffer such brutality.

Curry: Do you fear some of these children will never be whole again?

Pernille: Whole is very relative in Congolese society. One thing I've learned from my time here is that these people are extremely resilient, despite what they've gone through.

Even Gabriel and Pascal. Video: Warlord or liberator?

Curry: Do you know they're going to be okay or does that remain to be seen?

Pernille: I'm confident that they will be okay.

Gabriel: We used to attack each other but now, we are on the same side in the same camp.

Curry: When you discovered that there were battles where you both were fighting for the other side of the enemy line at these battles, what did you think?

Pascal: I do not think anything bad about Gabriel. Whatever I have I share with him and whatever he has he shares with me. I think of him not only as my friend, but as my brother.

Since Pascal was recently reunited with his family, for now he is separated from his new brother. And while Gabriel remains in the center for child soldiers because it's too dangerous for him to return home, the boys have vowed to be lifelong friends.

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