Exploring the Issues of Child Soldiers and Forced Migration in the Democratic Republic of Congo Through Cathy Caruth’s Theory of Trauma

Exploring the Issues of Child Soldiers and Forced Migration in the Democratic Republic of Congo Through Cathy Caruth’s Theory of Trauma

Article by Khonde Khonde Norbert

Abstract: Since its independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has witnessed multiple forms of political unrest such as civil wars, child abuse, forced migration, etc. Unfortunately, most of these realities, especially before the era of internet, remained unknown to many people living outside the borders of the DRC. The Congolese intellectuals are then invited to narrate the story of their country, including its ups and downs, to the rest of the world. By focusing on the issues of forced migration and child soldiers, this paper intends to bring the experiences of the Congolese people to the forefront of world traumatic memories. It analyzes these issues through the lenses of Kim Nguyen’s dramatic film War Witch and Cathy Caruth’s theory of trauma. It postulates, similar to the case of Jewish history, the traumatic experiences of the Congolese people as an analytic tool that facilitates an understanding of the darkest moments of the human condition in general. Even though Kim Nguyen film War Witch was not conceptualized as an historical documentary, still its background and the story that it narrates sheds light upon some dark realities happening in the aforementioned country. Hence, this research argues that War Witch reflects the current socio-political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Keeping in mind that the issues of child soldiers and forced migration exist also in other parts of the world, this paper utilizes the DRC as a study case to understand the nefarious consequences of these alarming matters.     

Keywords: Democratic Republic of Congo, Civil War, Forced Migration, Child Soldiers, Trauma.   

Header image “Female Fighter in Congolese Rebel Group” by Matchbox Media Collective is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED.


Kim Nguyen’s movie War Witch follows the story of a 12-year-old girl named Komona who was abducted by the Great Tiger rebel group in Africa. Released in 2012, it was categorized as a Canadian dramatic war movie. Even though the director, willingly or unwillingly, did not explicitly set its plot in any specific country, there are several clues suggesting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as its most probable background. This paper particularly utilizes three important clues to retrace the background of this dramatic film. The first clue hinting at the Democratic Republic of Congo is related to the two basic languages used by the characters in the movie. The main language used by the characters in their conversations is Lingala. Subtitles are provided in French to enable a bigger audience; especially the Francophone world to have easy access and a better understanding of the movie’s content. Geographically speaking, Lingala is one of the many African languages mostly spoken in the DRC (former Belgian colony) and the People’s Republic of Congo (former French Colony). This clue of language situates the two countries as a possible background of the movie since both countries use Lingala and French. However, to name one of these two countries as the most possible background, a second clue is needed. The place where it was shot is utilized as the second hint towards naming a possible background. “Filming in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)…Nguyen found his child actors among the urban poor of the capital city. In fact, in her 2014 memoir, Survivre pour voir ce jour [Survive to See This Day], his young star, Rachel Mwanza, gives details of her hard life as a ‘child of the streets’ in Kinshasa and contrasts it with the thrill of walking down the red carpet in Hollywood as a young star” (Gilbert & Green, 2015, pp. 508-509). Enlightened by this excerpt by Gilbert and Green, this research postulates the DRC as background for its analysis of Kim Nguyen’s movie. The third clue is about the nationality of the main protagonist Komona. In real life, the actress is called Rachel Mwanza, and she is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This hint too suggests, in some way, the setting of the movie in the DRC. Nevertheless, this research remains open to other interpretations and/or analytic tools. With this background information in mind, delving into the plot itself becomes a lot easier.

Plot and Theoretical Framework 

The whole movie, as Kim Nguyen puts it, is a dialogue between the main protagonist Komona, and her unborn child (the fetus in her womb). She narrates her traumatic experience to the unborn child starting from the day when she was kidnapped by the Great Tiger guerrillas. As she moved with the rebels through the jungles of Africa, the young Komona endured many forms of hardships. She was unfortunately raped and got pregnant as a result of the rape by the commander of the rebels. It is to her unborn child, that she narrates her traumatic experience. War Witch is a classic example of how traumatic experiences work. The aspect of latency is clearly illustrated in the life of Komona who, even after returning to civil life, continued to be hunted by the horrors of war. This brings us to Caruth who, inspired by Freud, argues that trauma functions like a disease. It gets stronger and worsens as time passes by. To illustrate the aspect of latency in her theory of trauma, Caruth utilizes a romantic epic poem by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso –Gerusalemme Liberata (The Freed Jerusalem) published in 1581. Originally this poem was written as a praise to the First Crusade for liberating the Holy City of Jerusalem from the hands of Muslims. Tasso’s poem was used by Sigmund Freud as an illustration for the theory of trauma. Freud argues that “the most moving poetic picture of fate…is given by Tasso in his romantic epic Gerusalemme Liberata” (Freud, 1955, p.22). Having been influenced by Freud’s writings, Caruth too decided to apply Tasso’s story to her theory of trauma. The plot of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata is summarized in the following excerpt: “Its hero, Tancred, unwittingly kills his beloved Clorinda in a duel while she is disguised in the armour of an enemy knight. After her burial, he makes his way into a strange magic forest which strikes the Crusaders’ army with terror. He slashes with his sword at a tall tree; but blood streams from the cut and the voice of Clorinda, whose soul is imprisoned in the tree, is heard complaining that he has wounded his beloved once again” (Caruth, 1996, p.2). The tragic story of Tancred, according to Caruth, can serve as a wonderful allegory that represents the enigma of human existence. It is a story that underlines the responsibility of the self which consists of listening to the voice of the other. Caruth’s theory encourages people who have experienced trauma to talk about it, and become witnesses. The purpose of this difficult exercise is to help them allocate new meanings to their life experiences. The discourse of witnessing becomes then the big umbrella under which Caruth’s theory belongs. There are many other scholars such as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub whose writings utilize the witnessing discourse which is also referred to as testimony discourse. The act of witnessing, as noted by Felman, remains individual. Hence, “in the testimony, language is in process and in trial, it does not possess itself as a conclusion…To testify— to vow to tell, to promise and to produce one’s own as material evidence for truth — is to accomplish a speech act, rather than to simply formulate a statement” (Felman & Laub, 1992, p.5). Felman further argues that, even though testimony is an individual act, it transcends the self since the historical facts or the situation referred to usually concern or involve other people as well. According to her, the plot in Ellias Canetti’s book Kafka’s Other Trial is one of the best elucidations of the discourse of witnessing. This book mentions a list of important literary materials (memoirs, bibliographies, and collections of letters) inherited from previous scholars from which Kafka drew inspiration. 

Like Kafka, Felman too has been inspired by other scholars’ testimonies or stories. She argues that “a life testimony is not simply a testimony to a private life, but a point of conflation between text and life, a textual testimony which can penetrate us like an actual life. As such, Kafka’s correspondence is testimony not merely to the life of Kafka, but to something larger than the life of Kafka, and which Canetti’s title designates, suggestively and enigmatically, as Kafka’s Trial” (Felman, 1992, p.2). In other words, witnesses represent in one way or another the entire community of people impacted by the story narrated. Dori Laub indorses Felman’s observation and asserts that “by extension, the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and a co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma in himself “(Laub, 1992, p.57). This seems to suggest that the act of witnessing presupposes the existence of historical events. An automatic link between literature, written or oral, and historical events is suggested.  If the discourse of witnessing must be applied to historical events, it then becomes a big challenge to relate it to War Witch which is a work of fiction. Fortunately, it is Caruth herself who provides an exit to this apparent impasse regarding the applicability of her theory to non-historical facts. In her analysis of the romantic drama film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) by Alain Resnais, Caruth acknowledges that language remains the main channel through which all theories function. Furthermore, she notes that language uses several detours such as the analysis of historical facts, fiction, metaphors, etc. Works of fiction like novels and movies, as she puts it, are detours of language that enable us to delve easily into real historical events. That is the reason why works of fiction can be utilized to interpret real-life situations. The most important question that Caruth’s theory asks is: what ethical lesson can we learn from history? This learning can only be made possible through the act of narrating which takes various forms or detours as mentioned in previous lines. In her review of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Caruth notes that “the question of history in this film…is a matter not only of what we see and know but also of what it is ethical to tell. The action of the film is itself the story of a telling, the story of a French actress who has come to make a film in Hiroshima and who, in her chance and passionate encounter with a Japanese man, tells for the first time in her life the story of her past: of her love affair at Nevers with a German soldier during the Occupation, of his death on the very day they were to run away together, which turned out to be the day of liberation; of her subsequent punishment, by the French townspeople, who shave her head, and by her parents, who trap her in a cellar, and finally of her ensuing madness” (Caruth, 1996, p.26). A French woman falling in love with a German soldier, during the Nazi occupation of France, was seen as an act of betrayal by the French people. Yet, this story reveals that human nature remains a complex reality; it is a labyrinth of unexplored realities that even the sharpest mind is unable to fully comprehend. Delving into that labyrinth of human existence requires surely the use of several tools, not merely the historical facts. With all these explanations in mind, we can now be able to understand why Caruth’s theory of trauma can be applied as an analytic tool in War Witch linking it to the sociopolitical situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

Findings and Discussion  

Enlightened by Caruth’s theory, this research postulates Kim Nguyen’s movie, though a work of fiction, as a wonderful metaphor through which the traumatic experiences of the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo can be portrayed. Nevertheless, it acknowledges the soundness of other means used by the Congolese people to express their traumatic experiences. To remain focused on our topic, two interrelated examples have been selected – the issues of child soldiers and forced migration. We begin with the burning question of child soldiers. A study conducted by Elliott P. Skinner in several countries around the world reveals that the question of child soldiers transcends the boundaries of the DRC. His findings reveal that the issue of child soldiers sadly affects many countries, not only in Africa but also in some Asian regions. Skinner’s article published in 1999 states that “during the last ten years, at least 200,000 young people have been involved in wars in different parts of the world. These areas include Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and the Former Yugoslavia. And while it is mostly boys who fight as child soldiers, in some parts of the world, girls are recruited too. Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, an international advocacy organization for children’s rights, has repeatedly called on all warring sides to put an end to the use of children as combatants and to incorporate provisions for their physical and emotional welfare in future peace settlements” (Skinner, 1999, p.8). Skinner’s argumentation brings us back to the theory of Caruth which asserts that every testimony of traumatic experience refers not only to the witness but also, in one way or another, to many other people affected by it. The simple reason for this is that humans are social beings; every individual experience is always lived in relation to other humans. Therefore, the issue of child soldiers in the DRC, as illustrated in the metaphorical language provided by the movie War Witch, may serve as a tool through which we may comprehend the consequences of this unethical practice in many other countries. Traumatic experiences, as Caruth puts it, are always characterized by two keywords — the wound and the voice. The wound symbolizes an atrocious situation that affects a person or a group of individuals. In the case of Komona, the protagonist of Kim Nguyen’s movie, the Great Tiger rebel group is the coercing force that causes her wound. Following Caruth’s theory, we may say that this 12-year-old girl becomes a representation of the many abused children in the DRC and all over the world. By underlining the issue of child soldiers, this paper attempts to allocate a new meaning to history. The history of child soldiers in the DRC and in many other countries is postulated as a tool that enables us to promote the rights of children.  What is ethical to tell in this metaphorical representation of the sociopolitical reality in the DRC, as depicted in War Witch, is the protection of children. Child soldiers in general are vulnerable since they are exposed to various inhuman situations. It is even worse for the female child soldier as illustrated in the case of Komona. It is important that we point out some of the scenes wherein the fact of being a child, intersected with womanhood, exacerbates the condition of vulnerability. Scenes depicted in the movie section (Nguyen, 2012, 57:09-1:22:40) may serve as typical examples of this aggravated state of vulnerability that Komona finds herself in. After a successful escape from the rebel camp, Komona and her boyfriend nicknamed ‘the magician’ are captured by the Great Tiger rebels. Before taking her back into the camp, the rebels make sure to first kill her boyfriend. Taken back into the camp, Komona is repeatedly raped by the commander. After killing the commander, she finally finds an opportunity to escape for good from the sinister rebel camp. Her difficult reinsertion into civil life and the newborn child that she is forced to raise alone become the new ghosts that hunt her after the horrific experience of war.

We move now to the second issue mentioned in our topic – forced migration. The question of forced migration is discussed, in this paper, in relation to that of child soldiers since both remain interrelated in the context of the DRC. Kim Nguyen’s movie viewed as a metaphorical representation of the sociopolitical situation in the DRC highlights the problem of forced migration as another important tool through which new meanings can be allocated to the traumatic history of the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is ethical to tell? This remains the central question in the above-mentioned issues of child soldiers and forced migration. Stephen Castles and Loughma Sean argue that the issue of forced migration has to be studied because, since the end of the cold war, it has grown vividly in many countries around the world. They observe that “the global refugee population grew from 2.4 million in 1975 to 10.5 million in 1985 and 14.9 million in 1990. A peak was reached after the end of the Cold War with 18.2 million in 1993. By 2000, the global refugee population had declined to 12.1 million” (Castles & Sean, 2003, p.3). However, this only comprises officially documented refugees under the narrow definition of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which refers only to people forced to leave their countries due to individual oppression on specific grounds. The issue of forced migration, as observed by Castles and Sean, appears to have been addressed only from the perspective of international migration criteria. Yet, the notion of forced human mobility is not only limited to the movement of migrants who are forced to travel from their countries of origin to other countries. The phenomenon of forced migration happens also locally since people may sometimes be obliged to move from one region to another inside the boundaries of their own native countries. In the context of the DRC, the phenomenon of forced migration happens both locally and internationally. The issue of forced migration, as presented in War Witch, can be applied to both local and international human mobility. 


In conclusion, we restate that this paper analyzed War Watch from a semantic perspective. This can be illustrated by a wonderful excerpt taken from the writings of Paul Ricoeur. In chapter seven of his Rule of Metaphor, Ricoeur asks a very important question: What does the metaphorical statement say about reality? He argues that the answer to this question must take into consideration two keywords – sense and reference. Ricoeur notes that “the question of reference can be posed at two different levels of semantics and hermeneutics. At the first level, it deals only with entities belonging to the order of the sentence. At the second level, it addresses entities that are larger than the sentence. It is at this level the problem reaches its full amplitude…Moreover, it means that what is intended by discourse [l’intenté], the correlate of the entire sentence, is irreducible to what semiotics calls the signified, which is nothing but the counterpart of the signifier of a sign within the language code” (Ricoeur, 2003, pp.255-256). Ricoeur’s argumentation resembles the approach taken in this paper. The issues of child soldiers and forced migration have been discussed, taking into consideration two interrelated levels of understanding. The traumatic experiences of the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as depicted in War Witch, constitutes the fist level. At the second level of understanding, the two aforementioned issues have been utilized as lenses for studying similar problems around the world. 


Caruth, C. (1996). Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Castles, Stephen, and Sean Loughna. “Trends in asylum migration to industrialized countries, 1990–2001.” Poverty, international migration and asylum. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2005. 39-69.

Felman, S. & Laub, D. (1992). Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge. 

Freud, S., Freud, A., Strachey, A., Strachey, J., & Tyson, A. W. (1955). Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Group Psychology, and Other Works; Translated Under the General Editorship of James Strachey in Collaboration with Anna Freud, Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. Hogarth Press.

Gilbert, P. R., & Green, M. J. (2015). Canada Once Again at the Oscars: Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle, the Tale of an African Girl Child Soldier. American Review of Canadian Studies45(4), 508-521.

Nguyen, K. (Director). (2012). War Witch [Film]. Metropole Films Distribution. 

Ricoeur, P. (2003). The Rule of Metaphor: The Creation of Meaning in Language. London: Routledge. 

Skinner, E. P. (1999). Child soldiers in Africa: a disaster for future families. International Journal on World Peace, 7-22.