The Kasai crisis: Snapshots of resilience
As the security situation stabilizes in parts of Democratic Republic of the Congo, communities are rebuilding hope
"People I did not know kidnapped me in Kinshasa; I stayed with them for six months […] My favourite toy is my teddy bear, I like to walk around with him and to give him hugs."
KANANGA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – The image of Ngalula Tshufuila Marie, 13, as she clutches her most prized possession, her teddy bear, stands in stark contrast to the traumatic experiences that have brought her here, pictured above at a Transition and Orientation Centre in Kananga, the capital city of the Kasai-Central Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Conflict has torn apart the Kasai region of the DRC since violence flared up in 2016, and children have been its main victims. In May 2018, at least half of all children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition, including 260,000 children who are at risk of dying because they are severely malnourished. Education has been disrupted, families have been displaced and children have been exploited as child soldiers.
However, since October 2018 the security situation has stabilized in parts of the region. Hundreds of thousands of Congolese who had fled into the bush or to neighbouring Angola are now returning to their communities. Many militiamen have also surrendered. Despite countless challenges, families are slowly rebuilding hope ─ and their lives.
Annabelle, 17, felt like she had no other choice. When her father died, her mother married another man who did not accept her. Without a place to go, Annabelle enlisted in a local militia and became a rebel soldier.
"At first, I was scared… but then, with encouragement, I got used to it," says Annabelle. As many militia leaders were eventually killed, the remaining child soldiers surrendered and went to a transition camp. "I enlisted without knowing what I was doing, without knowing it was wrong. Now I have to live with this."
Annabelle wants to be a primary school principal. Just like Marie, she is being helped to reclaim her childhood at the Mpokolo Wa Muoyo Transition and Orientation Center in Kananga. Transition centres like these provide urgently needed psychosocial support to children who have been associated with militias or exposed to traumatic situations, helping them to regain a degree of normalcy and transition back to their families and communities.
In Boya Village, a UNICEF emergency classroom sits on the grounds of the former Kasanga Kalulu Primary School, which was destroyed in 2017 as a result of ongoing clashes.
Since the beginning of the conflict, over 600 schools and health centres have been destroyed, leaving many children without an education.
With no safe space left to teach, Anto Nteka Shimanga holds her classes under a tree outside the Mpanya Primary School in Bakuakubala, Kasai. A local militia burnt the local school down in August 2017. Although the classrooms have been rebuilt, the situation remains precarious and students fear for their safety.
Almost half a million children in the region were unable to complete the school year in 2017. Since the beginning of the conflict, hundreds of primary and secondary schools have been attacked or used for military purposes.
Before children and families fled to safety in 2017, the Kamajiba Primary School in Tshikapa used to have 125 students. But since the security situation has stabilized in parts of the region and displaced children started to return, school attendance has skyrocketed beyond 700 students. This called for temporary classrooms to accommodate them and ensure that no child is left behind.
A young girl carries a bucket full of water from a water station in Mbuji-Mayi, Kasai. The station has been primarily supported by UNICEF, which provided a generator that allowed for the pumping and distribution of water. The station supplies five villages with water.
"There was a militia that began to attack the civilian population, so we decided to leave on foot for Tshikapa [the capital city of Kasai Province]. We walked for five days; I carried Patience on my back," recalls Mbombo Helene, 22, who walked about 150 km to reach safety. "My other child was sick, but it was impossible to get treatment. He died on the road.”
Patience, just over two years old, is currently being treated for malnutrition at Kanzala Hospital in Tshikapa. More than 220,000 children under the age of five suffering from severe acute malnutrition were admitted to receive therapeutic care across DRC in 2018. Nearly 87 per cent were treated successfully.
“The province used to be affected by ethnic conflicts but nowadays calm has returned. However, displaced Congolese are still reluctant to come back home," says Éric Kabamba, a health practitioner at Kanzala Hospital where he is treating four-year old Batuakapapa Marie in their Intensive Nutrition Treatment Unit.
Dozens of malnourished children are admitted to the Intensive Nutrition Treatment Unit every month and malnutrition remains one of the most urgent and serious threats to children in Kasai.
“In general, children are malnourished because men are gone and mothers do not have enough money to feed their children well," says health worker Madeleine Kabondia. As part of her job, Madeleine teaches Félie, 30, and other mothers how to grow vegetables to ensure children get the nutrients they need. “I come to advise them on what they can do to feed their children properly.”
Distributing therapeutic food and training health workers, mothers and community members in infant and young child feeding practices is key to tackling malnutrition.
How is UNICEF helping?
UNICEF is on the ground helping to deliver life-saving supplies and services: Read more here.
In early 2019, UNICEF pledged to step up and intensify efforts in the DRC, primarily in regions like Kasai that face population displacement and epidemics, including Ebola. This has brought emergency health services, nutrition, water and sanitation supplies – and possibly a little bit of peace – to communities affected by the crisis.