A small boy of five stood on Bunia's main street gravely handing his orange plastic assault rifle to an older boy of about 15 in camouflage trousers and a fuschia pink T-shirt, a real AK-47 slung across his chest. \nThe older boy inspected it silently, a vacant look in his eyes, seemingly open to the idea it might work, just like his own rifle. \nIf Ituri, the most strife-torn district in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was once famed for the beauty of its forests and the music of its pygmies, it is now notorious for its child soldiers, many of whom are still young enough to ask strangers for sweets or biscuits. \nThis is in a country where child soldiers are the norm. A recent report by the UN accused 10 movements fighting in DRC of using fighters under the age of 18. \nAid workers in Ituri estimate that half of those fighting in Ituri are underage. \n"It's a bit different here in Ituri in that the average age is younger and there is less forced recruitment (than elsewhere in DRC) and more voluntary recruitment. It's families and communities who send the children, the communities see it as their own protection," Johannes Webenig, the head of UNICEF for eastern DRC, told AFP in Bunia. \n"You have to contribute to the war effort and there are different ways of contributing, one being to send a child to fight," he said. \nThe leaders of Ituri's armed groups like to play down the problem. Thomas Lubanga, the head of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the group that currently controls Bunia, claims he has "just a handful" of child soldiers and that all are orphans who are better off among his fighters than they would be out on the streets. \nOne of his opponents, Mathieu Ngudjolo, the leader of the Lendu Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) dismisses the problem. \nGhislain, a ragged child of 12 on the outskirts of Bunia, seemed flattered by the interest in the shots he had just fired into the air. \n"Have I ever killed anyone? Yes I've killed five men already", he said proudly, brandishing, like his six fellow child soldiers, a rifle in one hand and a sharpened stick in the other. \nFor Ituri's boy soldiers, the line between real and make-believe is a thin one. \nIn the ranks of FRPI at a camp outside town, the boys have taken to dressing up. One wears a red straw hat of the style favored by the late Princess Diana. Another, not to be outdone, has made a headdress out of a baseball cap with a blue nylon tablecloth wrapped around it. \nYet others, a little older and fully aware of the fear they already inspire thanks to their weapons, have accentuated the effect by wearing wigs that give them dreadlocks flowing to the waist or a white papier-mache mask with a dehumanizing effect.
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