|© UNICEF video|
|These children in DR Congo have been able to return to school thanks to help from UNICEF and its partners.|
By Sarah Crowe
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 14 February 2008 – Not far outside this town that has swelled to ten times its size in as many years, the hardware of war can be found along all routes in this region of active volcanoes, forests and lakes.
But it’s not bullets or bombs that have led to the deaths of more people here than any other conflict since World War II. At a therapeutic feeding centre in Rutshuru, North Kivu, which had been cut off for months in the fighting, the real root of this emergency is in the silent scream of withered babies, of five-year-olds with sunken eyes and bloated bellies, of anxious mothers unable to breastfed.
More than 1 million homeless
More than 1 million have been made homeless in this vast region of North and South Kivu over the past four years. Mini-villages composed of igloo-like huts of banana leaves with plastic sheeting have been spawned for miles around Goma.
It is here that easily preventable but deadly diseases, such as cholera and measles, can spread like wildfire – and would, if not for swift intervention by organizations like UNICEF and its partners.
To continue responding to the chronic suffering of children and women, UNICEF is requesting $106 million for DR Congo programmes in its Humanitarian Action Report, which was launched worldwide this week.
Rape as weapon of war
The needs are huge here and the biggest are those that don’t show, like systematic and widespread rape – the scourge of eastern DR Congo, where it is often used as a weapon of war by rebel groups.
In a classroom near Lake Kivu, every child has their own war story to tell. Orphaned or wounded, living through their nightmares, the children wait for their families to be found.
|© UNICEF video|
|Children have borne the brunt of years of conflict in DR Congo.|
One of them, Rachelle, is now 10 years old. The last time she saw her mother was a year ago when soldiers attacked their village. She tells her story with vitality but with deep, wide-eyed sadness.
“The rebels came through and chased my mother, trying to rape her,” said Rachelle. “They shot at my older brother, but the bullet just missed his ear. All the neighbours were screaming and running. I grabbed my little brother, a casserole pot and some cloth, and ran off with the others who were talking about going to Goma.”
Children living on their own
With sticks, leaves and some plastic, Rachelle made a tiny shelter in a camp for the displaced. Since then, she and her brother have been alone.
She has just started to go back to school, thanks to a UNICEF-supported project for the displaced. With the help of Save the Children, the process of tracing her family has begun.
Not far away, young Pascale (not his real name), 14, is not yet back in school. His empty classroom echoes as he picks his way over a floor littered with blue schoolbooks provided by UNICEF. The date on the blackboard remains untouched – 20 October 2007, the date soldiers ransacked the school, cleaned out the clinic, looted the medicines and took eight of his schoolmates as porters or soldiers to fight with them.
‘There will be peace’
“I heard shooting in the hills behind us the day the bandits came through and took everything – our crayons, our pens, our books,” said Pascale. “Then they went down to the village and just attacked everyone. They raped my older sister.”
But despite all this, Pascale had nothing but hope that things will change. “Oh yes, yes. I know that one of these days there will be peace,” he said.