|© UNICEF video|
|The people of eastern DRC must deal every day with the ongoing effects of decades of conflict.|
By Sarah Crowe
The following story is based on reporting from the new documentary, ‘Not by Bombs and Bullets: Behind the DRC Conflict’, about the war’s ongoing effects on women and children (see video links at right).
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 26 June 2008 – The road to Rutshuru runs past hazy active volcanoes and silver lakes. It would be the stuff travel brochures are made of – that is, if this route on the eastern edge of DRC, flush with Rwanda, wasn’t literally lined with the hardware of a war few understand.
The road starts at Goma on Lake Kivu, a town that has swelled to 10 times its size in half as many years dotted now with mini villages made up of mini-huts of banana leaves with plastic sheeting. For most of last year, the traffic went only one way, as fighting scattered tens of thousands.
Still risky to travel
Despite the recent peace conference between the government and rebel forces here, it is still too risky to travel without a convoy. At a village along the Rutshuru road, participants in a UNICEF mission were stopped by a large group of displaced people wanting to talk to us on camera.
“It’s fine you can bring your humanitarian help, your tents, your water, your food,” one of them, Jean-Bertrand Rworetse, told us. “But you know we really don’t need that. There is only thing we need, only one thing we ask for, and that is peace.”
None of the group was actually from the village; everyone came from Bukima, a mountainous region some distance away. During one of many waves of displacement due to fighting, they moved into houses left empty by others who had fled and set up camp further along – all leapfrogging their way to safety.
Protection for schools and clinics
The UN blue helmets of the United Nations Mission in DRC, or MONUC, are out in force. They’ve freed up zones that were once no-go areas, but their gun barrels are still pointed at the hills ready for trouble, protecting schools and clinics.
Pascale (not his real name), 14, takes us up to his school past the white UN tanks. The date on the black board, 20 October 2007, is a testimony to the day rebels attacked his school.
“I heard shooting in the hills behind us the day the bandits came through and took everything – our crayons, our pens, our books – then they went down to the village and just attacked everyone. They raped my older sister,” he said.
|© UNICEF video|
|The road to Rutshuru on the border of Rwanda and DRC remains risky to travel on, despite a recent peace conference.|
Looking beyond the pain
This is how children die. This is how they lose out on schooling.
Even though the conflict in DRC has claimed more lives than any other since the Second World War, you don’t hear the fighting, you don’t see the fighting.
At a therapeutic feeding centre supported by UNICEF, Sister Dominique Laskowski, a Catholic nun from Poland, said she fights back the tears when she sees mothers who have fled from the violence bringing in their babies. She tries to look beyond the sunken eyes, the mothers’ pain.
‘How strong she is’
Sister Dominique found an old photo of a baby.
“This one we thought was going to die,” she said. “Her mother had died and her sister and father couldn’t feed her. Now look how strong she is. It really touches your heart. The war has done this.
“Mothers cannot work in the fields,” she added, “because they are too afraid or stuck in camps or on the run, and don’t have enough protein themselves and so no breast milk. The children are given solids too soon and they get diarrhoea, and marasmus and kwashiorkor set in. It is really tragic.”
The scourge of rape
Easily preventable diseases like cholera, measles and malaria thrive in wars like this. Living on the run – on top of each other in camps, unused to taking precautions and just not having a home – weakens the toughest.
But there are other, more sinister scourges. Every day, the doctors and nurses at the Heal Africa hospital back in Goma deal with the physical and mental trauma of girls and women who are the victims of systematic and widespread rape.
“These military men who have been in the jungle have lost their humanity, they commit such brutality using sticks and guns, whatever,” said Dr. Jo Lusi. “We can repair our girls and our women surgically, but what we cannot do is mend their minds.”