Focus: Children in the DR Congo

BY ROBYN CLARE SCOTT – robyn@ragazine.co.uk

In 1898 Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness about the atrocities committed under King Leopold’s rule in the Eastern Congo. Over a century on, the region, now a fully independent country, continues to be plagued by violence and suffering

The cause of this may no longer be the corrupt colonial regime of an eccentric Belgian despot, but the end results are the same and, as is usual in these situations, women and children have been worst affected

The Red Cross has estimated that 40,000 people have died every month since 1998, putting the total of number of dead in the millions. Starvation and disease ensures the death toll still increases daily

The Congo has lacked real stability since dictator Mobutu, who himself committed atrocities in the country he personally named Zaire, was deposed in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, with the support of Rwanda and Uganda

A new Democratic Republic of the Congo was formed but fighting between different rebel factions, aided and abetted by other African nations, has continued to varying degrees ever since.

A measure of stability was restored by a 2003 peace deal and the 2006 democratic elections which confirmed Laurent Kabila’s son, Joseph, as president

However, this has not magically ended the problems and the situation in East Congo, in particular, has remained dangerous

An aid worker, in the Congo last month with a major organisation trying to improve sanitation and health in the East, explained the situation is still serious

“The country is naturally very wealthy in diamonds and gold, and one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, but the violence there has been brutal and sustained, showing the worst side of human behaviour

“Sometimes you get a conflict where there is a very clear political aim but I find in the Congo conflict, the motivation of the armed groups is centred much more nakedly around resources, with an element of tribal politics thrown in

“Most people that we met through the aid work had been displaced from their homes, often this has happened to them several times before, usually after an armed faction has entered their town

“The people know they have to flee to protect themselves, they grab their kids and anything else they can and run. In many cases they just end up hiding in the bush.

The latest estimate from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre suggests that up to 1,400,000 people are still displaced. In the worst cases, families can end up becoming separated with children forced to fend for themselves

UNICEF has also suggested there may be as many as 4 million orphans living in the DR Congo

The aid worker said even those who make it home safely together face serious problems

“Unfortunately, they often return only to find there is nothing left on their farm land. Sometimes even their sanitation facilities and water supply will have been trashed. They have to start again

“Outbreaks are very high in these circumstances and have killed many. Under fives are particularly susceptible to diseases like diarrhoea and cholera which are rampant in the East.

“Along with pregnant women, the elderly and HIV positive individuals they are an extremely vulnerable group. Any aid agency will target them with their projects to try to save lives.

UNICEF has estimated that one in five children dies before reaching the age of five and nearly a third of this age group are malnourished and underweight

According to the aid worker, children also face the gross disruption of their education

He said: “Most schools are only basically functioning in the East because of the conflict. The trauma they have suffered, running from guns, seeing relatives killed, must be awful.”

According to UNICEF figures, 4 million children are not in school in DR Congo, including 400,000 who have been displaced

Many have been orphaned and quarter of 5 to 14 year olds are working rather than attending school. Some are even fighting in an armed group before they reach their teens.

The Congo aid worker said: “One of the most disturbing things you can see are kids, aged 9 or 10, holding an AK47. Children are initiated into these armed groups, educated into their way of life, until it’s all they know.

“How do you come back from that? Their childhood is basically destroyed as they get caught up in things. It’s a terrible cycle, causing much scarring over the long-term.

Warchild puts the number conscripted into armed groups at more than 30,000 children. Many more have been casualties of the conflict, although there is no way of knowing the total number that have died.

The situation may finally be beginning to settle but the aid worker said that many areas of the Congo are still relatively lawless.

“There’s even a terrible impunity that has developed over crimes such as rape. I think it’s now regarded as part of the spoils of war and a way of humiliating people. It can devastate families

“I encountered women who were very fearful of even going into the bush

“Because of everything, the country is very fragile but it was striking to see some people starting to return to their homes with a degree of confidence

“This was most obvious when they began putting time and energy into the land. In these situations you can sometimes see the human spirit at its very best and get a sense of progress

“However, I don’t think all parties who should be at the table are there yet. Political pressure needs to be there from other larger nations to hold things together

“Many African nations, just like the DR Congo, are formed from a multitude of different ethnic groups. A stable state will manage them all and manage to celebrate the diversity but you don’t have to scratch at the surface too much to cause problems

“There needs to be a strong state and unfortunately I think the healing process will have to be a long one for the Congo.”

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