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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Frontline Diary

27 April 2006: Long-term development in DR Congo depends on lasting peace

© UNICEF DR Congo/2006/Lagana
A child walks past part of a camp in Vilo, DR Congo, which has become home to more than 1,000 families forced to flee their homes due to violence.

By Susan Lagana

Susan Lagana is a UNICEF press officer based in New York. This is her account of a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo with representatives of the UNICEF UK  Committee and UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell.

GOMA, DR Congo, 27 April 2006 – Over the course of five days earlier this month, our small group travelled through eastern DR Congo, visiting Bunia, Beni and finally Goma, the largest town in the Ituri region. It was clear that UNICEF is providing truly lifesaving emergency interventions on the ground in these war-torn areas. But any hope of moving from humanitarian aid to long-term development will depend on achieving peace here.

DR Congo has suffered from constant violence and instability for most of the past decade. Since 1998, an estimated 4 million people have been killed in the civil conflict. In the eastern part of the country, numerous militia groups have forced 800,000 people in North and South Kivu to permanently abandon their homes and seek shelter in camps.

Demobilizing child soldiers

The options are so severely limited for children in DR Congo that some 17,000 of them are associated with armed groups. While many are forced to fight, some say it is their best chance for a new life. In Bunia and in Goma, we visited UNICEF-supported centres where demobilization programmes for child soldiers aim to help them avoid re-enlistment when they return home.

© UNICEF DR Congo/2006/Lagana
UNICEF UK Ambassador for Humanitarian Emergencies Martin Bell interviews a former child soldier in DR Congo who, after six years of fighting, is training to be a mechanic.

At the SOS Grands Lacs Transit Centre in Goma, the atmosphere was charged with pent-up, aggressive energy. With few opportunities for school or work, it was not hard to understand why many boys choose to fight.

At this centre – where boys play soccer, attend school and receive some vocational training – UNICEF UK’s Martin Bell interviewed a 17-year-old who had been a soldier since he was just 11 and not big enough to carry a gun. By age 13, the boy had become an expert soldier and had been wounded in battle. After six years of soldiering, he is now training to become a car mechanic.

The work being done at SOS Grands Lacs is critical, but the task is daunting. An estimated 25 per cent of the children served by the transit centre go back to fighting when they leave.

Problem of sexual violence

At almost every stop on our trip, we met victims of another tragic byproduct of the DR Congo conflict: sexual violence. UNICEF and its partners in the field are trying to help these girls and women in various ways, from offering legal aid to providing critical surgery and HIV/AIDS testing. But by many accounts from those on the frontlines, the problem of sexual violence and exploitation is increasing.

© UNICEF DR Congo/2006/Lagana
Children uprooted from their homes by ongoing conflict and living in a camp in Bunia, DR Congo, study at a tented school provided by UNICEF.

In centres like the Sake Transit House outside of Goma, more than 4,000 girls and women had been identified as victims of sexual violence since 2003. These centres provide counselling, medical care and basic skills such as mat-making and sewing to help women earn a living when they return to their villages. UNICEF has helped train over 70 counsellors to work at centres throughout North Kivu.

And while many girls and women in the country are used as sex slaves, some are also fighters. In Bunia, we visited the COOPI Transit Centre, the temporary home of 60 girls who had been demobilized from armed forces just a few months before. The youngest girl at the centre was just 10 years old. The girls receive medical attention and counselling to deal with their traumatic experiences.

Need for stability

As a result of the violence and insecurity here, HIV/AIDS is also a big concern. At Charite Maternelle, in Goma, women come for prenatal care and are encouraged to get tested for HIV; however, only 30 per cent agree to the test because they do not want to know their status. There is discrimination against those with the disease, and many do not understand or cannot afford the treatment.

Despite these and other terrible problems, eastern DR Congo is a beautiful place with rolling green hills, rainforests and lakes. But the continuing violence prevents any buildup of infrastructure and services in this part of the country, which is largely without a government presence. The elections planned for July or August of this year may provide some hope, but there is concern that the aftermath may cause even more instability. 



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