Sunday, 26 June 2011

Kaleidoscope Kinois

Today I wanted to give you a flavour of War Child’s work in Kinshasa, which is not as large as in Goma, but as a prelude I wanted to mention one of the most monstrous crimes visited on children,their recruitment as soldiers. I’ve gone back for all the below to Jason Stearns’s singular book on the Congo, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters.

Laurent Kabila’s rebellion in 1996 against the regime of the dictator Mobutu was resourced largely from thousands of child soldiers who, according to Stearns, “made up the bulk of Laurent Kabila’s Congolese fighters”. In Dancing the personal history of a 16 year old in Bukavu is outlined, the recruitment, the training camps, the fighting itself. The basic training is brutal, delivered in a remote area of the country, of course. The recruits are known as bakurutu, and they have to practice killing someone – usually a prisoner from amongst a number of deserters. If they complete, they become kadogo (Swahili for child soldiers), pure and simple. But why choose children, who must come second to having fully formed adult fighters able to carry a pack and fight like a man?

The rebellion needed recruits fast. The harsh basic training was intended to instil discipline and weed out those physically too weak for the upcoming war….many of the recruits who went through this training were under 18 years old – children according to international conventions. Diplomats estimated that 10,000 child soldiers participated in the AFDL rebellion. The rationale for child recruitment was simple: many commanders consider that children make better, more loyal, and fearless soldiers. One commander of a local Mai-Mai militia told me: “you never know who you can trust. At least with the kadogo you know they will never betray you.”

Stearns finishes his portrait by saying that much of the fighting was guerrilla fighting, at close quarters and involving risk ambushes: “children were often the only soldiers who had the guts to engage in many of the operations, who actually obeyed orders, and whose sense of danger was not as well developed as that older soldiers….[for that reason] they often formed the first line of defense or offense.” Children in oversized uniforms carrying grenade launchers that were bigger than they themselves were!

The UN flight was early but our pick-up at N’Djili is on time, and we meet our Kinshasa Programme Manager Louis, who drives Mighty Warrior, my brother, Wanda and myself the short way from the airport into the first project we are going to visit. The city appears to be a dirty, sprawling, chaotic, disorganised mess. The local jest is that it used to be known in the old days as Kin-la-belle (Kinshasa the beautiful) and now it’s more like Kin-la-poubelle (Kinshasa the rubbish bin).

Within a few minutes, we are at the Anuarite Centre, operated by War Child’s partner here OSEPER, which stands for ‘Oeuvre du Suivi, Education et de Protection des Enfants de la rue’, or, roughly translated, Work on Follow-Up, Education and Protection with Street Children. It’s in the very poor Tshangu area of the city.

The centre supports some of the 30,000 street children in Kinshasa – the figure comes from Human Rights Watch and is undoubtedly an underestimate. These children may be orphans from the many wars, ex-child soldiers, often with dependents, or children banished from their families and communities through accusations of being child witches. As previously, War Child will concentrate on girls, and particularly those living and working on the streets, and involved in sex work.

Anuarite is a drop-in centre that regularly houses 15 – 20 girls. There are regular recreational activities, counselling, literacy/arithmetic classes and classes on life skills, such as on hygiene, sex education, etc., with peer outreach activities, public health campaigns, and workshops on issues such as HIV/AIDs. Group sessions will be held on the problems of the street. The Centre provides meals on most days, and each of the girls will do their share of cooking and cleaning. It also does what is called ‘sensitisation’ with the local community to build support the project and raise awareness about issues the girls face living on the street. It also seeks to sensitise street boys to these issues, as well as police training on children’s rights and the DRC National Child Protection Code. There are six social workers located at the Centre.

Finally, a night ambulance goes out every night of the week from the centre except Sunday to provide immediate medical care, counselling, advocacy, and referrals to a wide range of street girls working in Tshangu. The service has been operational since November 2010. We will be going out with the ambulance tonight as their shadow. It takes different routes every night, although there is usually some kind of informal structure to the route. It’s usually out for 2/3 hours. The social worker and nurse in the van will deal with basic health problems. Children can get referred to Anuarite from the night ambulance. The children it supports may not all live on the street and it can be hard to regulate so the service is only used by certain types of children.

Louis tells us all to lock our doors and shut the windows – a regular scam is the police flagging people down for some alleged offence or possible offence, and if your window or door is open they will get in the car until you buy them off!!! In fact, street crime is the biggest problem in Kinshasa and a real nuisance.

Girls on the street often get into prostitution and, in some cases, are even sent out by their families to earn money. There are plenty of instances of HIV and pregnancies. They may leave babies with their families – in any case, they will not usually bring them to the centre. Many girls will be in and out of families all the time. They tend to form their own informal groups, prostitutes clubbing together for socialising and protection. The most common problems for girls are sexual violence, road traffic injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, with many of the problems deriving from prostitution under the age of 12.

The main reasons for girls going onto street are: family, sometimes witchcraft – much more common here than Goma, everyone in Kinshasa believes in it, and it serves as an excuse to expel the girl from home. Many men will stay at home and send their wife into the street to make money. One social worker at the centre makes home visits to the family and works on reunification, which is very difficult to make stick. Despite that, we have reunified 19 girls in 6 months. We are trying to find out what works best in each of these cases, and also find out from the girls what they would like to do, and follow that up.

I enclose a few pictures taken before we go, but I’m not able to include any from the visits that we make as it is too dangerous and insecure to take out a camera on the street in the night-time. However, you can see one on the War Child website if you wish:

http://www.warchild.org.uk/our_projects/democratic_republic_of_congo/street-children-in-kinshasa

The day comes to a dusky and overcast end, made worse by the chronic lack of electricity, so no street lighting. We climb into the jeep and follow the ambulance to stop 1. We alight by the roadside in a prominent area with plenty of street girls and wait for the first patients to come by, which they do shortly. We stick around for 10 or 15 minutes watching patients queuing up and going into and out of the ambulance, then make our way to the next contact point in Tshangu. Here, the nurse goes to a known area where prostitutes gather to hand out condoms and speak to them. It’s under a 10 minute walk away through pitch black sandy, uh, paths which narrow at the entrance to an alleyway. We go by a revivalist church and hear the singing and stomping – apparently there are loads in Kin. There are hundreds of people milling around on the streets and we feel, for the first time I think, apprehensive about what is going on. My brother almost has his pocket picked a few times. We huddle together around Louis while the nurse does her work. Louis gets into a discussion with a local ‘big man’ who claims to be the pimp. He does not seem to be hostile, but it’s hard to tell and Louis is obviously calm and very experienced at dealing with this.

Finally, we head for our last contact point, still in Tshangu, district of Masina. We stop by the Marché de la Liberté "M’Zee Laurent-Désiré Kabila”, one of the largest markets of Kinshasa, built during the presidency of Kabila to repay the inhabitants of the district of Tshangu who had resisted the rebels in August 1998. We see a boy here treated for a foot injury that has been neglected and set in a bad way, and a number of others. Wanda sits in the ambulance with the nurse and social worker and so gets to see everything close up

The night ambulance illustrates the tremendous risks that War Child staff run to deliver to the most vulnerable. It also illustrates the profoundly difficult context in which we work. But, then, you knew that already! After that amazing experience, we all felt exhausted from the day and went out for a pizza with Louis and our driver and flopped into our beds at the hotel.

The next day we went to the office for presentations by and discussions with the staff. A big question that emerged was how to extend and develop our work. From our visit to Goma, the obvious answer appeared to be to work more closely with the community on child protection, actually tackling the root causes rather than just the symptoms. However, there are a number of problems with that in Kin, not least of all finding or identifying the right people in the community and the non-governmental organisations to work with. There was an animated discussion about the feasibility of doing this and what it would mean. We agreed that the right place for this was the new Country Plan for DRC.

Really Really Really N’djili

I work at the office with Mighty Warrior in the afternoon while my brother and Wanda go back to the Anuarite Centre to interview some girls there. About 1600, it’s time to go to the airport for my 2100 flight. Now, pay attention here. If you ever have to go to the airport in Kinshasa, it’s good to know all the ins and outs.

You have to set out very, very early because of the traffic. We snaked through alleyways, deadends, streets, roads, and one brief stretch of motorway for about 1½ hours. I guess that we went about 15 miles an hour or so. It’s on the outskirts of town, but the problem is the traffic. We went around the national stadium twice, I swear. We had to take detours because the roads were ‘bloque’. The streets have more people walking than driving on them. The conditions are slumlike, but I’ve been in Kin for less than 24 hours so that’s just my first and last impression. People are walking along selling little balloons and I wonder what the hell they are – surely people wouldn’t have a mania for tropical fish here? – and it turns out that they are water bags for immediate consumption. I think of stopping and buying a few. However, we finally got there about 1800, just barely in time. I was accompanied by our office manager in charge of security.

Now, the crew of my aircraft did not set out early enough, it transpired, and they took 3 whole hours to get to the airport from downtown Kin. So they got there late. As a result, my 2100 flight didn’t take off until 2300, neatly eliminating the possibility of making my connecting flight in Paris. Nice. In between getting to the airport and settling into your seat on the plane, here’s what happens.

First, you meet your, er, facilitator. We pay someone to facilitate the process. He knows all the key people in the airport and at the checkpoints. Heaven knows what happens if you don’t have this person. He takes my $50 bill for the departure tax and comes back with a chitty that I have to tender just before getting on the aircraft. Don’t lose the chitty.

Secondly, you go in the terminal and have your bag searched. Don’t straighten things up in your bag too much or lock it – you will have to do it again anyway. Be warned!!!

Thirdly, you queue up to have your ticket and passport checked.

Four, curl around the corner with your bag for the second bag search.

Five, check-in desk. Forget highfalutin Westernised ideas about internet check-in – it doesn’t work here. A lot of things don’t. You check in in a daze and give your bag over with a whimper.

Six, immigration. At this point, Mr. Facilitator pulls you out of the queue and sits with you while you fill in the departure card. He then takes this card, your passport, boarding pass, and palms them to an official with some Congolese Francs, who takes all this stuff through a door marked ‘Salle Climatisee’ and comes back out again about 15 or 20 minutes later with your card stamped.

Your facilitation ends here. He shakes your hand, waves goodbye, then watches as you jump the queue and go to the other side. At that point, the official who did your business comes up to you and breathes alcohol all over you and starts mumbling, obviously wanting more. You’re on your own here, but the facilitator is just behind the wall, looking over the mirrored glass, and gestures me to walk through in between the stalls where people are queueing. I do this very quickly. The Salle Climatisee, by the way, is a barefaced lie.

At that point, you present your documents again, and get ready to go through the metal detector. You get through and you have to present your documents yet again and be subject to questioning.

Then, it’s over!!! Or so you think. There are two duty free shops and one craft shop on the other side. There is a television. There is no departure board, nor any announcements. I found a distressed café in the corner, unmarked and with a forlorn set of potted plants propped up by a dirty wall next to a non-working air conditioning unit. I ordered a Tembo and the worst cheese sarny in the world through this metal grille and sat down to wait. I tried to text Mighty Warrior and others, but all my texts were barred.

When there is no news of the flight, I get anxious enough to hang around what would appear to be the departure exit to the airfield. Finally, about 1000, the flight is called by an official shouting at us that the Air France was ready to go. We file onto the buses and to the plane.

Or, rather, to the queue, which leads up to the next set of checks, with leads to…yes, it’s true. They have set up a whole security operation next to the plane. First, you have to present your chitty – remember that from 4 hours ago? If you don’t have it you don’t leave. Then another passport check. Then another passport check prior to a bag check and a body search. I think. There might have been another one in there somewhere too. Oh, and I was given a different boarding card along the way as well.

I got into my seat exhausted and relieved. Kafka ain’t got nothing on N’djili. I almost didn’t mind that Air France had kindly substituted another airline at the last minute – Hi-Fly. Which brings me back to Randy Weston and the beginning of this blog ('Hi-Fly' is the famous Weston composition). I won’t tell you about my next two missed flights, not really relevant here, but I spent a terrific few hours flying around and around UK airspace and going through security again and again.

No, I would conclude this blog by saying that, indeed, Africa has the Blues. But in between all those are loci of hope. One of those hopes is War Child and other organisations like it.

Beignets, Chapati, Gaufres


I woke up to a BBC World Service Africa report this morning about the Democratic Republic of Congo being the rape capital of the world, although it would be more accurate to describe it as the rape country. The reason is the number of sexual assaults and rapes predominantly by militia or ex-militia in conflict-affected zones, although War Child believes that this is changing, and that many are now committed by civilians in these zones. The specific incident that led to the report was the 60 rapes recorded – and I emphasise heavily that word - earlier in the month in South Kivu, with 100 people in total suffering rape or some form of trauma. The perpetrators were 150/200 former rebels integrated into the DRC Army that deserted from a local training centre on 9/10 June. There was looting and general thieving as well, but nothing as serious as the rapes.

Which is the other side of Sister Alvera’s wonderful children that we met yesterday at Flamme d’Amour, so wonderful in fact, that I wanted to balance this sober beginning to today’s entry by featuring some more pictures of her singing children…The DRC Sound of Music it ain’t!!!










This morning’s visit is to Anna, who is in Don Bosco’s independent living programme, which is self-explanatory. War Child funding allowed Don Bosco to open up the programme to girls for the first time (it had been boys-only before) and there are now three girls in the programme. We got in the jeep and drove to her home in Mabanga over some of the worst roads we’d ever seen so far – and that’s saying something!


Anna’s Story

She was an orphan living with her grandmother and with the legacy of family conflict from her parents’ time. She’s 17 now. She was originally from Goma and was at Maison Marguerite for a year, where she learned cooking. She’s now going to school and in her ‘spare’ time selling baked goods, especially doughnuts but, as we were about to find out, other more varied items as well. She still has conflict with her family and there is a general social stigma about women living on their own, which was described to us as one of the biggest challenges anyone like this will have. For that reason, I will put up no pictures of her, but I can provide evidence of her work.

Anna eventually wants to become a nun. She told us the terrible events that led her to Maison Marguerite, again through the usual Swahili/French/English 3-way, edited from my notes:

"Bandits kidnapped me and blindfolded me and took me far away from Goma to a hideout in the forest. They secured me in a hole for 2 weeks, and gave me no food or drink at all. I developed lesions in my throat. Then the men then took me out and threatened to kill me. However, the man who was guarding me had sympathy with me and allowed me to escape. They did not intend to rape me, just kill me. I think my father’s family probably arranged the kidnapping.


I still had the blindfold on when the guard told me that I was free to go. I walked for 2 weeks, managing to find some water on the way, then found out I had been held in Rwanda. I managed to get across the border illegally with a smuggler and came back to Goma to stay with my grandmother, then I went to Ngangi. I wasn’t in great shape mentally, and I could not go back home, so I went to Maison Marguerite.



The psychologist there spent a lot of time with me and, outside that, I learned a lot about cooking and went to classes. They tried to get me back together with my grandmother, but it did not work. After that, I got onto the independent living programme with another girl named Susanne. She looked for her family for over 3 years and couldn’t find them. Then, someone recognised her, and proposed sending her to Masisi, where they believed her family came from. She started to have nightmares, and wanted to kill herself at the thought of going back, so she went back to Maison Marguerite. Her parents were killed in Rwanda, and she tried living with a foster family, but it didn’t work out.


I’m very happy with my life here now. With the suffering I have been through and the breaks that I’ve had, I would like to help others, hence my ambition to become a nun. Whereas my grandmother used to pay for my education before, I now go to school at Maison Marguerite every day, studying physics and pedagogy – we’ve started the exam period already – and when we’re finished in July I will go back to selling my doughnuts. I make enough money to live, and pay for electricity and water; for the water I have to walk about 2 minutes. I have always performed well in school and, with all the training that I’ve had in cooking and sewing, I’m confident that I have the knowledge to make myself an independent life and play a part in the community.

At that point, Anna brought out plates of doughnuts, chapatis, and waffles, and we tried some of her excellent products, then packed them up to take back to the office, got into the jeep, and bounced and jounced away.

Our second visit that morning was to the local child protection committee in Mabanga, which is supported by War Child. There was already a local committee, so our approach in this case was to provide training and guidance. The focal point for child protection in the district is also head of the district, so it has powerful support. The committee consists of 13 people who each have geographical responsibilities for Mabanga Sud, with a population of 82,000 living side by side with 11,000 people in a military camp; there are then representatives for each street and area. Children are the majority of residents in the neighbourhood, so the effort is a necessary and important one.

Children in Mabanga Sud have many difficulties and problems. Children are exploited by being sent for and carrying heavy containers of water. There are lots of children living in the street. The usual health problems mentioned in other blogs are also present here. These are layered on top of being near the army encampment. Children end up exploited in or as prostitutes in the camp. The committee has no means of getting into the camp to try to sort these problems, nor any way of stopping children from the camp causing problems in Mabanga Sud. They have a better relationship with the camp leader, though, and hope to make progress on these soon.

The elders explained that the awareness campaigns War Child have been running have had a real effect, and we saw some of the posters explaining exploitation, child soldiers, etc. Children are now more aware of and demanding their rights; in turn, parents and families are now more aware of the rights that children should have and it is having an effect on their behaviour.

One problem that they cited was ‘motivation’, i.e. they are looking for some kind of flow of payments for phone credits (for the phone calls that they have to make) and even for time (as the time is taken away from other income generating activities). The same issue came up in Masisi the other day so we go away to ponder some solutions.

For lunch, Mike had reserved a table at Fati Mata. He’d not been there before, but asked around and it got some good comments from everyone locally. There, we had the most gigantic tilapia I’d ever seen, easily overlapping the plate, and barbecued to a crisp with plenty of herbs and spices. C’est la roi du tilapia. Highly recommended if you’re in Goma. Meanwhile, when we come to pay, my brother continues his ongoing and continuing saga of a ripped $20 bill. It has a tiny tear in the bottom and nobody will accept it. Even the ever-helpful Mike has refused: “sorry, can’t help you with that!”

After that the team go back to the office for our debrief with Mike. We have taken away collectively some clear impressions and issues from our visit to Goma. I won’t list them all here, but I mention just a few:

without education being at the core of a child’s life, no progress can be made in the DRC;

importance of literacy has been brought home and how it can transform a family within a community

project most impressed by was the microcredit and the amplification of benefits – women that make

money put more of their children through school – and that was a fantastic innovation

focus on girls is right and that has been proven

everything is small scale, but focus means War Child makes a big difference with what it does

partnership working – we do much of our work through partners (by funding and specifying, a delivery relationship; or by collaboration) and the

importance of this as we grow cannot be understated; perhaps we should be doing some more work on that (field directors?) by coming up

with protocols or other ways of working

work with most vulnerable most important, and how do we maintain that focus as we grow and

resist the temptation to chase funding?

We then knocked off work with the staff and went to the Mamba Club, where a typical Congo scenario unfolded: we ordered beers and samosas and got chatting around the table about our week; the lights and television suddenly went dead; this roaring sound started in the corner, a generator sputtering into life; and then our conversations resumed once again. If you are in the DRC for any time, it’s likely to happen to you at least once! After our gigantic lunch, we had no need of any food, but still ended up at Coco Jambo for a nightcap and some snacks, and said our regretful goodbyes for a wonderful near-week in Goma.

The next day we went to the Goma airstrip for our UN flight to Kinshasa, stopping en route to pick up some of the famous North Kivu cheese from around Masisi. Getting on the UN flight was somewhat surreal and involved several weighings of baggage, an overweight fee, and a number of negotations and discussions, after which we got on our flight and landed in Kinshasa about 2 hours later.

Thanks to Anna for inspiring the title of today’s entry – and thanks too for the great cakes!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Flamme d'Amour

I was woken up this morning by shouts and yells at about 0700, and when I looked out the window, boatmen were bouncing up and down on what looked like three canoes connected with two struts – I just about managed to get out my camera to take a picture. I learned later from Mike that they would have been out fishing all night on Lake Kivu and, after a successful trip, were just celebrating!!! Still, I’d rather have that than the sound of planes – we’re on the flight path for the airport and the beasts sound as if they are about to land in your bed!

This morning was sad because one of our group, Jude, departs today for Kigali to get the flight back to London. We also felt unsettled when we received 3 security alerts this morning. Mike came to pick us up and said he had got a text about an attack this morning on Nyamianda north of here. The population were on the move and had stopped at Mubanda. A second one was much less exciting. Vital Kamerhe was in Goma today for a UNC (Union pour la Nation Congolaise) rally in support of his bid for President in the elections later this year. The third was a bit close to home – there was an incident in Lushebere at the IDP camp that we visited on Sunday. Apparently, someone was killed by police, so the locals burned the police station down. There are reports of civilians protesting and rioting. Mike remarked that it could have happened on Sunday, or we could have visited Masisi today, and we could have been caught!

We got our pick-up as usual and we made our way to the first of today’s visits to War Child projects. The roads were, if anything, worse than usual and we bounced and jounced in the jeep en route. It makes taking notes or doing anything impossible, and you feel like a human basketball. You see, the volcano erupted in 2004, pouring vast rivers of hot lava everywhere, just to make a terrible situation even worse. As a result, there is about 10 feet of flat road in the city.

Maison Gahinja is the last of our Don Bosco visits. It was named after the first child who came here to stay. Gahinja specialises in street children. In separate compounds, it has 60 boys and 14 girls ranging from ages 5 to 16 (although when we spoke to the children, we found some of them don’t really know how old they are). War Child fund the street girls. The standard is more basic than other Don Bosco projects, partly because the emphasis is on reintegration into a home off the streets as soon as possible.

Why do girls end up here? There are all sorts of sad reasons, dear reader, and one problem is that it’s often hard to determine the real causes, e.g. if children steal something from someone in the street and seek refuge from them in Gahinja. Some are accused of sorcery – as are boys. Most come from vulnerable, poor families. A typical scenario will see the father earning money and investing heavily in bottles of Primus or Turbo King, the local beers, for his own consumption, then beating his children and forcing them onto the street. One girl said, “I had problems in my family, and I was beaten and not given any food, so I found it safer to live on the street.” Some children will be victims of family breakdown, and a typical scenario in poor neighbourhoods will see a parent remarry, and reject children from a previous marriage. Sometimes, children will be cleared from the streets by police, ordered to do so by politicians keen to show that they are doing something. These round-ups inevitably involve beatings and, in the last one, a boy drowned. Unicef and others have met the city officials to try to get them involved, rather than rounding up street children.

Children are referred often by other children – older will tell younger, for example – and by adults; also by other NGOs. Don Bosco staff also fan out through the city to look for unaccompanied children; in addition, Maison Gahinja is next to a market where many street children will gather. We asked the staff how many street children there were in Goma and they didn’t know, only commenting that the number is certainly not going down!

Many of the children will come in with a drug or alcohol addiction, often glue sniffing, even among the smaller children.

Once the children arrive, the staff try to get them to open up about their situation as they will often lie or dissemble, avoiding telling the truth about their real problems.






We went first to the wooden school, which is being replaced soon by a more permanent structure. As with the other Don Bosco projects, some children will be external to the project, only coming here for vocational classes or school, when they have been reintegrated with their families. In fact, school can be used as a significant bargaining chip with the family when mediating reintegration. If the family can be contacted, the problems will be explored with them and school can go into the reintegration package.

The schooling is not formal and state-led, but an accelerated learning programme to take a child from not being able to read and write to being fully literate and able to be taught a trade. More advanced children will go on to a normal school for which fees will be paid. The children are eager to learn, and motivation is not a problem. Children who can read and write will spend less time in mediation, so they can in general be reintegrated faster.

A typical day will begin with school, followed by sports/cultural activities such as singing, dancing, drumming (Don Bosco is usually invited to provide children for parades locally), or football. All the girls have learned how to cook and will cook for themselves

Some children will be here for a few days, some up to a year, but Don Bosco try to move them on as soon as possible. Part of the reason is to create space for others and meet the massive demand for places, although in 2006 the doors were opened temporarily to all street children over the election period. Again, it is not made too comfortable, as the idea is reunification and reintegration. Of course, the girls may go on to Maison Marguerite, the boys to Maison Ngangi.

Support staff include social worker interns who come to Gahinja as part of their training. We asked some of the staff what their biggest successes and challenges were; protection, reunification, good counselling and support leading to positive outcomes were in the first category, reintegrating girls into a normal life in the second.

We view some of the classrooms and dorms and the multi-purpose hall, which is used for games and presentations. We then went to meet some of the girls and interrupt a lesson, during which we asked them what they wanted to do with their lives:

· one wanted to learn French and become a teacher

· one wants to do haute couture

· one wants to go into business selling in the street

· one wants to do hairdressing

· one wants to go to school

We met one girl, Sara, who was a prostitute in a brothel, and a victim of sexual violence. She checked into Heal Africa, where she was in the hospital for awhile, then she was left on her own. She is now in a full body cast resting at Don Bosco as the original operation was undone once she left Heal Africa. She is 17 years old and has been in Gahinja for a year. She believes she may have a child somewhere. She invited us to take pictures of her, and I include one below with her face disguised.

Funding priorities are infrastructure, mainly classrooms, equipment, PCs; capacity building of staff and training; new staff. Security is a bit of a problem, with occasional break-ins, and War Child is in the process of obtaining a grant to support improvements.

Next we went to visit Heal Africa, with whom War Child have just started partnering. They work in Masisi, Rubero (a new programme, where most referrals come from near the Rutshuru road to Uganda), and Rutshuru, up country from Masisi. Sexual aggression runs riot when armed groups are demobilised, and the victims will often end up here. There is a hospital and outreach services, together with a sewing workshop and a shop where 1/3 of the proceeds goes to the producer. In total, there are 60 women here. Girls will also be referred to the hospital here from Don Bosco, returning afterwards.

We then headed for the port area of Goma – the boats leave from here for other cities and towns on Lake Kivu – following the road by the lake then ascending the cliff to the outskirts of town, during which Mighty Warrior confessed that if he didn’t find toilet facilities soon, we might have a medical emergency on our hands!!! The bouncing and jouncing of the jeep had been taking its toll. I’ve included a pic of him emerging triumphant.

Sing, Sing, Sing

Our final stop of the day was at Flamme d’Amour. Sister Alvera was previously in partnership with someone, but decided to start her own project because she wanted to remain firmly child-focused. The age range here is from 6 months to 22, all abandoned or orphaned in families that are not able to take care of them – but this is not an orphanage, and attempts will be made to reunite children with their families as soon as possible. All of the girls sing in church, and they greeted us with a song as we arrived.

The connection with War Child is that some girls will require the more self-sustaining and nurturing environment here, so we are going to begin funding them. Many of them will again be victims of sexual violence. They also teach girls sewing so that they can generate an income. They also have some land where they raise pigs and produce fruit and vegetables, which also provides some training and knowledge for the children.

Flamme d’Amour has lots of links with the community and volunteers locally; local churches will also pitch in and help with volunteers. They are also connected with a church in Canada that raises funds for them.

35 children stay here. They all go to school, which is outside the project. There are 12 paid staff and 9 volunteers. We met a little boy who was 7 months old found abandoned in the bush, only 2 kg. in weight. We met a girl who has been in a wheelchair for 2 years after being raped.

And then, dear reader, the most amazing thing happened. The children assembled on the steps of the house, next to a man with a clipboard. They then started this amazing and uplifting dancing and singing. We sat watching them, initially rapt, then starting to stamp our feet and clap in rhythm. One of the songs was a round, in which they inserted each of our names, during which a different child would retrieve us and bring us up to dance. It was great!!!

Today we have seen some amazing, surprising and inspiring girls supported by War Child, who have emerged from the most shocking and devastating treatment, evidence of the incredible resilience that man has in the face of inhumanity to man.

Thanks for today’s title to the singing and dancing children at Flamme d’Amour.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Ngangi


Thunder and lightning wracked the night before we woke up to a relatively becalmed Lake Kivu. Normally the cock starts crowing at 0430 – believe me, I know – and then a multitude of birds starts to join in with their incredible bird calls. Our guest house is right on the lake, so we get treated by a riotous dawn chorus every morning – mainly from a tree on the north side that has about 50 birds sitting in it looking out at the lake.

Goma has a humid but very temperate climate this time of year. It’s overcast most of the time. We’re several thousand feet up in the mountains so it’s cool and, while there are definitely mosquitoes around, I’ve not had to use the Mosi-guard or even the gauzy netting that curls above my bed.

Our visits today are to some important people in the local child protection network, the UN agencies that get involved, and to Maison Ngangi, a large Don Bosco complex. Don Bosco have worked in the Congo for over 100 years, which is amazing. Most of today was spent at Ngangi, so that is what I would like to tell you about – without any commercials, history, or slabs of information, you will be relieved to know!

Ngangi is essentially in two parts, a main area with a complex of buildings, sleeping quarters, and kitchens, warehouses and workshops, and Kinogo, a real town outside it where houses have been built onto the hardscrabble volcanic rock and ash from the lava that flooded Goma in 2004. We started by walking over to and around Kinogo, where Don Bosco have built brightly coloured houses. There are 23 child-headed households here and 23 girls lodged here for training in sewing.

For sewing, Kinogo is an alternative for teaching to Marguerite where, for various reasons, some girls are unable to go. Some of them, for example, live quite a distance away, next to the volcano, so this is the nearest training centre. The courses are identical, save that the girls do more weaving in Kinogo. Once girls leave any of the programmes, they benefit from being external but still connected to Don Bosco, which aids reintegration and supports them through pooling their work and selling the goods. It normally takes them about a day to run up a dress, for example.

All the families in Kinogo are vulnerable to some extent or another and there are quite a few women also here, but very few men. What men there are are generally absent, in town trying to earn money. The facilities in Kinogo are basic, as the Don Bosco philosophy is to support, not overwhelm, so there is no running water or electricity in the houses, although various enterprising folks have installed electricity, expanded the houses, etc. The idea is that the support should not be too ‘comfortable’ as the objective is reintegration into the community – of course, the index of comfort would be defined differently here in the DRC.

Those on the microcredit scheme, supported by War Child, are concentrated in one area of Kinogo so we visit one of the sewing shops producing clothes and other goods, then go back to the main complex.

Ngangi has a health centre which also services Maison Marguerite. There are 2 doctors and 4 nurses on duty. Doctors will come here in the evening and if children can be treated here – and typically that will include malaria, diarrhoea, minor cuts and scrapes – they do, otherwise they are referred to the hospital. 2 girls supported by War Child are here. Sometimes the health centre acts as an outpatient centre, and 4 girls attended yesterday for daily care. We met a doctor there from Project Congo who said that the facilities were being built up from a few years ago, when they were scaled back during the crisis. At that time, every room in the centre and elsewhere was being used as a hospital, as they can expand to meet demand. They’ve had oxygen for 2 years, x-ray for 1 year, in the case of the last a portable unit she had brought from the U.S. She comes out on behalf of Project Congo for 3 weeks every year.

We then had a general discussion about these very basic facilities and how there was plenty of scope to improve them – was the problem a lack of money? Mike said that too many programmes, even now, had the wrong idea about what would work in a particular situation. If you stay small and containable, and add new things gradually – such as a portable x-ray – that can work well. If you send farm equipment or electric lighting, what happens when the equipment needs maintenance or you’ve got to replace the light bulb?

We then visit Ushindi, part of Ngangi where live, amongst others, babies and girls in transition. Don Bosco are good at working with babies, getting them up to normal height and weight, and have no infant mortality. 80% of children have mothers who have passed away, either in childbirth or from rape trauma. It is very expensive to care for babies, and War Child had to adjust its funding accordingly. There is one team for babies, one for toddlers, and we are all deeply affected by what we see, children at the very beginning of their lives being nurtured here. In all cases, there is an attempt to trace families of children; some will be associated with the military, so very hard to trace. A little boy grabs me by the legs as we depart!

We then go to see a more prosaic aspect of the work that Don Bosco does, the kitchens, where we meet Carla, who takes us through how Don Bosco feeds 3,300 persons a day at Ngangi. Much of the food will come from the World Food Programme and is warehoused with fresh food – meat, fish, fruit and vegetables – sourced locally. Don Bosco have plantations near Masisi in which they produce some of this, which also allows another chance to raise funds and provide experiences for children, but the plantations have not been fully exploited because of the IDP (internally displaced persons) and refugee problems. They want to develop the revenue from the sale of local products.

Older girls will also be beneficiaries of the programmes, and will support each other and younger girls. All children at Ngangi are abandoned or orphaned and will live in a house here. War Child contributes by funding certain staff who support its target beneficiaries. There is a dorm for older children; a social worker will always be on hand to support them. And, as with everywhere in Don Bosco, you can live at Ushindi and benefit from the programmes, or live outside and travel to them and still benefit. There are courses in electricity, carpentry, plumbing, sewing and masonry.

Generally, the counselling work with girls pays dividends, but the most difficult situation to handle is reintegration, especially if insecure – girls often don’t want to go back as they could be in danger (rape) again and may need mediation and work prior to reintegration. Girls from Rutschru and Masisi dominate the programmes, but they can be from other provinces (e.g. Kindu) or Rwanda.

More children are being educated as families have greater means; this has a big effect on family stability. Over 10,000 children have asked to join the Don Bosco programmes, but they can only take 3,300.

About 100 girls have gone through the microcredit programme, which supports those in starting businesses so that they can maintain themselves. The problem is that demand exceeds supply for the programme. They enhanced the previous programme using funds from War Child. The programme provides all the means to do the work and the success rate is 95%. The microcredit programme includes two types of activities: (i) small retail, e.g. women selling charcoal by the side of the road, and (ii) prototype project, which is done to test a particular type of activity for inclusion in the menu of programmes. They will frequently back a category of activity to see if they can expand it, support more in developing a sustainable livelihood. With (ii), often Don Bosco will lend money, and provide service and/or credit facility. Microcredit is potentially offered to all, not restricted to particular types of children. Finally, when the credit is
repaid, there is a small interest fee charged that is used to pay for staffing.


We then went out to visit 3 microcredit businesses, a charcoal seller, a manioc seller, and a pharmacist. In the first case, the owner used to go up to 150km away to get large bags of charcoal, then return and sell the charcoal in smaller quantities by the roadside. Then the microcredit programme got involved and allowed her to scale up and get more charcoal, so now she has a lorry going up there on a regular basis and has expanded into other, larger quantities. As she has been more successful, she has gone from having 1 child in school to having 3 in school.

In the second case, this was largely along the same lines, buying amounts in quantity (wholesale) then taking a turn on selling retail. The manioc seller also used the money to put more of her children through school.

In the third, this was a more straightforward retail business from a slot in the wall, which is a typical place to find a pharmacy in Goma. Mike, however, is not your typical pharmacist but, in this case, he alertly went behind the counter so most of us could fit in!!!

Thanks to all the staff at Don Bosco and, as always, to all the kids and to the women who allowed us to visit, ask questions, and take pictures.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Battlestar Gomactica

After the field trip yesterday, we were all exhausted and so had a slow next morning. The rest of the trip will be spent in Goma, exploring the situation and War Child’s work here. So we went to the office to meet Mike’s team and to see their presentations on the work they do. That’s a prelude to the afternoon, when we go to visit some of the projects of Don Bosco, one of our major partners here, where they deliver services to children supported by War Child.

It seems a good idea now to tell you, dear reader, a bit about War Child, should you wish to know more. This next section is therefore a bit of a – aah - commercial, so skip it and go to the middle of today’s entry if you wish!

As the name says, War Child works with children marginalised by conflict. They could be child soldiers, ex-child soldiers, children orphaned by war, children and families who have been displaced or affected by conflict. Our vision is a world in which the lives of children are no longer torn apart by war. As a smaller charity, we do a lot of work ourselves and partner with others to deliver services but, even more, we have to influence bigger charities and other important institutions and organisations to give priority to these children. A second point is that we cannot possibly provide everything for these children, nor can we work with every child impacted by war. So we concentrate on improving what Mighty Warrior calls the “protective environment” for children who live with a combination of insecurity, poverty and exclusion; and we concentrate on the most vulnerable.

What we’re talking about here is a differential calculus, if you like, of deprivation. All children have needs, of course. More vulnerable children have more needs – for example, if disabled. Street children are even more excluded and vulnerable, and conflict-affected street children will be the most vulnerable and worst affected of all.

Into that calculus War Child injects hope. We do their work through education, protection, and providing sustainable livelihoods. Hence in Masisi concentrating on child protection, but also paying attention to the lack of schooling and the terrible situation of those in the camps. Uniquely, we help support community leaders in coping with child protection issues, and this is at the heart of the work in Masisi. We want to build up community, civil society and local government so that they support recovery and reintegration of girls associated with war or armed forces.

For example, War Child has established 20 child protection committees in Goma to protect children with 409 members (130 men/279 women) to build a network, which needs to be strengthened to make it more active. We also concentrate on making the links with community leaders, building awareness, engagement, action, and responsibility. Every year the Goma authorities round up children in the street in a ‘clean-up’ exercise, usually around the holiday periods when more people are out shopping. The children can end up in custody, are usually beaten and, in recent case, drowned. This would not happen if community links were in place and referral networks were working well.

Alongside this long-term effort, we work directly with children through our partner, Don Bosco. These are children in the street, but not necessarily street children. The problems that they have to deal with are amazing. 80% of girls do not go to primary school, sometimes because of sexual violence. Even when in school, they are not safe; war zones commonly feature children preyed on by teachers, for example. Otherwise, they will be prey to the usual dangers and threats, including people in authority taking advantage of them, then telling them to keep quiet even though they have been raped or attacked. For that reason, children in the streets who have no schooling are even more vulnerable and can be more easily preyed upon as they may find it difficult to communicate and to respond to rehabilitation.

Of course, the story is not all bad. There is a Children’s Parliament in Goma which is trying to promote involvement in political life and which has links into the local schools. And there are quite a few NGOs working here with children, addressing a portion of the need that exists, but it is certainly better than nothing. There are also the UN-registered agencies, MONUSCO and UNHCR and UNICEF, a couple of which we will be meeting on this trip. But the enormity of the problems is staggering.

In This Place

For those who know something about the history of this part of the world, the ill treatment of the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable will be old news. Which makes it even more despicable.

The Congo was discovered by Portuguese in the 15th century and, through a series of manoeuvres, became a personal fiefdom of King Leopold of Belgium, who turned it into a slave state, subjugating the natives for economic gain. Ivory and rubber were extracted at the end of a gun or whip all through the land; infrastructure was built using forced labour; along the way, the colonisers laid waste to both land and people. These were eventually exposed and Leopold was forced to surrender the colony to the Belgian state, who ruled it until independence in 1960. The story of Leopold has been told very well in King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, and the horrors it relates sound not a million miles away from the situation in the Congo today.

Some 10m people were estimated to have died in the exploitation of the colony. Children hardly escaped, and not just because their parents were executed for not achieving the hated quotas for rubber production. “Even children were put to work: one observer noted seven- to nine-year-olds each carrying a load of twenty-two pounds,” says Hochschild. He also tells a story from the memoirs of a Belgian magistrate, Stanislas Lefranc, who heard a number of children screaming and,

On tracing the howls to their source, Lefranc found ‘some 30 urchins, of whom several were 7 or 8 years old, lined up and waiting their turn, watching, terrified, their companions being flogged. Most of the urchins, in a paroxysm of grief…kicked so frightfully that the soldiers order to hold them by the hands and feet had to lift them off the ground…25 times the whip slashed down on each of the children.’ The evening before, Lefranc learned, several children had laughed in the presence of a white man, who then ordered that all the servant boys in town be given 50 lashes. The second instalment of 25 lashes was due at 6 o’clock the next morning. Lefranc managed to get these stopped, but was told not to make any more protests that interfered with discipline.

In 1890, Leopold proposed building 3 specialist children’s colonies, not with benevolent motives, but to breed soldiers. These took in orphans, which were in most cases not literally orphaned but absent any parents as they had been killed in the pursuit of rubber, according to Hochschild, who says that the colonies: “..were usually ruled by the chicotte [the gigantic whip made of rhinoceros hide] and the chain. There were many mutinies. If they survived their kidnapping, transport, and schooling, most of the male graduates of the state colonies became soldiers, just as Leopold had ordered. These state colonies were the only state-funded schools for Africans in Leopold’s Congo. Among the traumatised and malnourished children…disease was rife and the death rate high, often over 50%. Thousands more children perished during the long journeys to get there…”

Exploiting and destroying children in the name of war in this place is thus hardly a new phenomenon. And not much seems to have improved in a century: more than 2.7m children under 5 have died as a result of the effects of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 and, even though there was a peace deal in 2003, there are still 1.7m people displaced. More than 250,000 people, including children and men, have been raped in the provinces of North and South Kivu alone since 1998. 35,000 children have been recruited into armed groups of which 40% are girls – and recruitment continues. War Child could work solely in the DRC and have its hands full.

Don Bosco

We had lunch in the office with the team and then got ready for our visit that day to Don Bosco. Our objectives are the recovery and reintegration of 800 conflict-affected or conflict-associated girls in 3 years, and we’ve already made a start with 262 having been registered there so far. Reintegration of children affected by conflict is never easy, partly because of the repercussions of re-entry into the family, and can made worse by the problems that may follow, such as exploitation, prostitution, etc. We work mainly with girls because they never get as much priority as boys. About ½ of them were victims of sexual violence; about ¼ were girl mothers and we are now looking after their babies as well; 23% were street girls; a small but significant number were accused of being child witches and so were probably expelled by their families (some of the above categories will overlap, by the way). The girls range from 12 – 17. We set off for the first project, Maison Marguerite, which mainly has girl mothers in it.

At the project, we met Ernest, our Don Bosco tour guide for the next few days, and Carola. We were also greeted by the inhabitants with a cheery song as we entered the gate and saw the brightly painted houses in which the girls live.

The lowdown was given to us by Ernest, who dealt with occasional questions to the girls by getting French translations of our questions in English and turning those into Swahili, a pattern that repeated itself over next few days. It could be a long process getting an answer, but there was no other way!



Maison Marguerite support 4 types of girls: girl mothers, ex-child soldiers, girls accused of child sorcery, and girls at risk in their family. Although you can work and live at Maison Marguerite, some left to return to their family where this was possible and attended school or vocational training daily.

There is no set time for girls to stay at the project, but a rough guide of 2 years with 1 year of vocational training is about right. The vocational training consists of 6 months of theory and 3 of practice. After the initial training, girls will come back for their intermediate stage. This will include things such as dealing with clients, which helps with socialisation and with confidence, and also means that they obtain a certificate from the government (DIVAS), so are able to get work. In the case of sewing, for example, a tailor will evaluate the girls and may even invite them to stay.

Babies will in general follow their mother from when born to about 2 years old. The youngest mother in Maison Marguerite is 13 – and we were fortunate enough to meet her. The houses they live in are split into 2, with girl mothers a constant, and a mixture of others in the other half. The have 16 girl mothers with their babies at present. It’s rare that a girl mother comes to Maison Marguerite alone – War Child and other NGOs will usually refer. Wanda took immediately to a little newborn that is about 10 days old!!!



The girls get training on how to manage a household, on caring for their baby, on hygiene, on their own hygiene – the idea being to empower a girl as a person, as a mother, and as a future family head. When a vocation is taught, follow-up takes place afterwards to make sure that income is generated. A Galerie Marguerite is planned in due course, a co-operative that will sell the products generated.

The main issue for girls is health, resulting from sexual violence, malnutrition, malaria and other diseases.



We asked the girls what their ultimate goals were. One answer, translated between E/F/S: “I just want to have a normal life. I hope at the end of this stage and end of the vocational training that I can have my own atelier, perhaps with other girls I know doing the same training, or get a good job and have a normal life in the community.” Of course, if reunited with her family, there will be no way that she can get the support to start her own shop. Another commented that, “I know that the training at this stage will be helpful, but the main concern is always financial problems.” Don Bosco does give girls at this stage a start-up kit, and Galleries Marguerite is intended to help girls over the transition to an independent life.



To see what happens to the girls, we went to a next stage tailor’s shop where Maison Marguerite girls work, which was a great experience.

We have planned for tomorrow yet more visits to businesses, this time in the microcredit programme part funded by War Child.



Thanks to everyone in the War Child offices in London and Goma for statistics and facts used above.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Masisi Matarajio

The morning traffic is Sunday sparse as we follow pitted roads to the outskirts en route to Masisi, in the hills and mountains about 70km. north and west of Goma. We ride in a 2 jeep convoy for security purposes with me, Mighty Warrior, Mike, and the Programme Manager and driver from Caderco, our proposed partner, in jeep one, the rest of the team in jeep two. We head first south, then west, our destination about 3 or 4 hours away on the bumpy roads.

In Masisi there are about 6,000 displaced persons living in 7 camps around the area, many children amongst them, and we are going to look at the conditions they live in and talk with the locals about the situation there. War Child is planning a new project there and so this is, in effect, a field scouting expedition, with some mad crazy folks visiting from the UK tagging along.

Mike explains the rationale as we slew down the road from side to side to avoid potholes. There is a real problem in Masisi with co-ordination in child protection cases. Save the Children were working here and created networks of child protection, but the methods that they employed – paying members of networks for referrals – may have inculcated unfortunate expectations. Now that they are withdrawing – they’ve run out of funding – there is the chance to try something new, and very simple: a freephone number to a radio operator, who then contacts local teams by radio or mobile to send someone by transport or on a motorbike to the child. This would then avoid the payment expectation and establish a call centre that supports the child. If it worked well, the freephone number could be spread across the province.

Our approach is to engage with local neighbourhoods and the community, with police, local leaders, and others. The key is that the call centre is focused on the problems of the child, and not with calling in troops or police. Caderco have been partners of Unicef for many years and have agents all over Masisi. They’re very tapped into what’s going on, have contact with most actors in the field, are well respected by the authorities, and have about 10 years experience. Rather than simply paying them to deliver every month, we envisage a full collaboration with them.

By this time the War Child Security Officer checks in with Mike by mobile and we confirm that all is going to plan so far.

We’re now on the new road that was only completed last year, and which winds up and switches back over the deep, steep valleys in the long ascent to Masisi. We pass through a village called Sake in an area controlled by mai-mai guerrillas as late as 2008, so the area has not long been stable and secure. The road works, though a little bumpy, but is perfectly good. We come close to the cliff edge at times, and all through the trip our driver constantly honks his horn to warn oncoming vehicles that we are just around the corner.

Our two jeeps make their way up the valley wraithed in dust, a billowy caravan. We are now far above Sake, which is a sheer drop off the cliffside. The area is lush and green, the sole problem being that the hillsides are so steep.

The rich farmland produces haricots verts, petits pois, and potatoes, amongst other crops. But the main deal here is dairy – the steep hills are always dotted with cows who look as if they are about to plunge off the damned cliff.


By the road we see plenty of people on foot, in some cases ex-soldiers in CNDP uniforms, in others traders walking to and from markets – market day is Monday, so on Sunday everyone will be out transporting goods in readiness. Many carry yellow plastic containers of milk, which goes to Masisi for processing into yogurt and cheese.



You may well ask what the government should be doing here. DIVAS is the government social affairs department but it has few resources so, until fully equipped and funded to do this work, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as War Child and others need to work here. War Child was influential in getting Masisi on the agenda at DIVAS headquarters in Kinshasa, although it may have helped that the numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) increased just before contract award. We have a six month contract from July – December. War Child is one of the few NGOs that work in rural areas, although the problems are not just there: the IDP camps outside Goma have 15,000 persons in them.



We stop to stretch our legs outside a small UN encampment inhabited mostly by Kenyans, Indians and Bangladeshis. Mike points out a nice house on top of the hill in which lives Kabila’s mother!!! We decide not to stop in for tea, but get back in the jeeps and move on. Mushaki comes up shortly afterwards, a village in which live Congolese Tutsi and ex-Rwandans. Mushaki is featured in Jsson Stearns's book on the Congo conflicts, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: "October 1993... - he could not remember the exact date - in the muddy market town of Mushaki, in the eastern highlands, he loaded up ten truckloads of young Tutsi and sent them to join the rebellion in Rwanda. Three years later, [Deogratias] Bugera and the young Congolese Tutsi he mobilised would become the vanguard in a second rebellion, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL)." And so goes the story of Eastern Congo, an area next to borders with other countries which has for many years had marauding groups competing for space and for power and resources, and where there have been more mass movements of peoples since World War II. The green and pleasant landscape belies these facts, but apparently many farmers in the area will have mass graves somewhere on their lands. We hold our breaths as we go through a dangerous and uninhabited part of the road where ambushes used to take place frequently.

Our ‘good’ road runs out and turns into a broken, potholed surface, and we start to “slalom the potholes” as Mike puts it as we climb the last few kilometres into Masisi. However, we feel fortunate that it’s not the rainy season – if it was, we would not be able to go up and back in one day!!! Masisi used to be centred in one place but now, with the IDP camps, it sprawls all over the mountains in a disorganised, jerry-built fashion.


Stearns sketches in for us the last 100 years of history of this area:

The problems of North Kivu can be dated to 1908, when the new Belgian colonial government took over the reins from Congo Free State. Under this new administration, thousands of Belgians escaped the industrial drudgery of their homeland to set up cattle ranches and plantations in the province's highlands. In 1928, the government created the National Committee of the Kivus, a charter company that granted itself 'all vacant lands' in the region. In practice, this meant that any piece of land that was not being farmed belonged to the state...tantamount to mass theft. The newcomers got much of the best farm and cattle land, expropriating a chunk of land larger than all of Belgium. The Belgians were then confronted with a lack of labor. The local Hunde and Nyanga communities wanted to farm their own fields, and the Belgians were wary of peasant revolts if they began exacting too much labor from locals. In 1937, they found the solution: by bringing in tens of thousands of Rwandans, whom they had long admired as industrious, the Belgians would create a large pool of loyal workers....Over the next 20 years, [they] imported around 175,000 Rwandans - mostly Hutu, but also many Tutsi - to the Kivu highlands. Unrest in Rwanda around its independence prompted a further 100,000 Rwandans to flee to the Congo between 1959 and 1964....By 1990, an estimated 1/2 million descendants of Rwandan immigrants were living in North Kivu. This massive influx caused bitter tensions with the local Hunde community which had been living in Masisi for centuries....In Masisi, 90% of all large plantations - almost 1/2 of all the land - came to be owned by these immigrants or their descendants.

We make for Camp Bihito in Lushabere, part of Masisi the province and area, where we have a meeting with the local Child Protection Committee. Our convoy comes to a halt before a squat one storey that is mostly orange tarp with dirt floor. Inside the Committee members are waiting for us, fewer women than men because many of them are off at church. Their elder, a local priest, told their story in French with others interjecting occasionally. Mike ably did the translating and summarising, and I took some notes and edited those a bit. Never mind, what he had to say was heartbreaking:

The Priest’s Story

“We have been here since October 2007. We came from Kembe about 30 km. away in Ishunga, an area which is still very insecure now. 20 or 25 families have just arrived in Camp Bihito from different areas, so not everyone is from the same area or comes because of the same reasons. There has been no reduction in those coming here, exactly the opposite, the influx is on the rise. There is an increase in night-time incidents in the Camp probably because of increased tensions; we don’t know where these are coming from.

Now, we would like to go back home. There are 2 problems that stop us. One is the insecurity that still exists. Second, our land has been taken over by others who have kicked us out. That is usually the issue with displaced persons. There are no legal documents either, making it even more difficult.

In 2009, we made a move to go back, but we had a new problem, which was the FDRC moving back the rebels and causing even more displacement problems.


There are 937 families and 4,278 persons in Bihito. 2,834 are children under 18. The main impact of living in this way is on the children. A big problem is that there is no school. There used to be a school, but that’s gone. The ordinary schools in Masisi have no place for our children. Only 113 of them are in local schools.

Lots of children become vagabonds, street children, perhaps even thieves. It’s very difficult to keep track of them. The vast majority of the children are girls. There are a number of dangers for girls in camp. One comes when they go out and gather wood for cooking – they may be raped by armed men. Girls usually start going out and gathering wood on their own about age 5 or 6. That makes them very vulnerable.

A second problem is when they are forced into marriages, early marriages, adultery. They are then not in school and highly susceptible to influence.

Boys have no occupation, no work, are not in school, so they make nuisances of themselves with girls, forage for something to eat, and other things that are much worse.


A further impact of being in the camp is that children lose respect for their parents, who cannot provide for them. Children will often go hungry, stray far from home, and get into trouble. Young mothers, once pregnant, may be reprimanded by their parents. They will usually stay at home as there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. Conflict often then happens between the 2 mothers and there’s a power struggle between them.

The biggest thing that could improve things in camp would be a school, which would help combat the negative influences and ensure that fewer children live on the street. 40 classrooms would be needed for all school age children in the camp. Classrooms are hardly the only problem. There is little land available, though, and what little space there is has been taken over by displaced families. The result is that young adults will have no formal education and little economic activity.”

In due course, we thanked the Committee and adjourned for a walk around the camp with the Norwegian Refugee Council representative. The NRC are planning to withdraw at the end of the month as their funding is running out. There have been attempts to get schools going locally, but these are not joined up – for example, one agency offered free education while the state were proposing to charge a small amount.



There are teachers in camp, so the camp dwellers could try to help themselves, but then the teachers would have to sacrifice the time that they spent to get water, wood and food. Water usually isn’t a problem, as there’s plenty of it about, but wood is 7km. away.

Walking around the camp is difficult as the paths slope up and back on the hill. The huts, mostly mudbrick or wood and tarp or corrugated iron, punctuate the landscape all around in a somewhat organised fashion so that there are paths and roads, a semblance of ordinary life. We have a look in one of them – most of them cram in 8 people.



There is little for children or, indeed, adults to do other than secure the necessities of life every day. There is little hope for those stuck here and, for their children, even less hope.

But it gets worse. There continue to be successive waves of IDPs in Masisi, and each wave joins previous waves, placing more demand on the shared resources of the camp, so increasing tensions between new and previous IDPs, let alone the permanent dwellers of Masisi. The social upheaval is massive.








The NRC has done their best but other partners are leaving too, and the health centres and water supplies that remain will need to be paid for by the camp dwellers. The World Food Programme has reduced its food allocation to the camps as its focus is refugees, not IDPs. If an IDP tries to return to their previous home to get food, they are often not welcomed. The UNHCR, as good as it may be, is failing to run all the services in the camp and maintain them. The world seems to have forgotten about Masisi.

We finish our walk then go for lunch at the Codelco office. It used to be surrounded by a neat picket fence but this was stolen sometime ago, just leaving a door!


Masisi is surrounded by areas of instability and, apart from other problems, there is a lack of co-ordination in child protection. Over lunch, Mike outlines the priorities for the new War Child project: (i) map who is doing what, (ii) do a gap analysis, (iii) convene a child working group to address. The objectives are to reinforce all the actors in the child protection network; to reinforce co-ordination mechanisms; to implement the freephone number and central radio controller with mobile teams in 8 places in Masisi Centre. The idea is to not to add a completely new structure on top of what is already there, but to work in with projects that already exist, e.g. Save the Children working on sexual exploitation and Medicins sans Frontieres on health. And, most importantly, to work with the state in the form of DIVAS to ensure it continues afterwards.

We end the visit by visiting the site of the new War Child office in Bukambo. Just 15km beyond is Walikale, which is too dangerous for us to visit. The new War Child office structure looks pretty dangerous too, not quite as life-threatening, but definitely lacking a roof and some walls. It’s very environmentally friendly, I joke weakly, as you can gather rainwater and you’re naturally solar heated. However, Mike is very optimistic and positive, but it needs to be up and running very quickly, and nothing in the DRC happens very quickly.



The long drive back to Goma looms ahead of us, essentially retracing our route out in the afternoon light. We break the journey at the Osso Ferme, where there is a local cheese factory that is unfortunately closed on Sunday, but where we met some locals and a fetching little fellow who made friends with Wanda.



Then we slalomed the potholes down the valley towards Goma and even glimpsed the volcano letting off steam in the distance. We were tracked en route by a series of roadside powerlines – word has it that Kabila ordered them built out here because a certain person lives up country…

As we drive back into Goma I see a local sign on a shop, “Viviance and Reconciliation”. It turns out to be a bar. Maybe…back safe in our guest house overlooking Lake Kivu, drinking some Tembo (the local dark beer), we all feel emotionally affected, subdued, transfixed by what we’ve seen.



Thanks for today’s title to www.kamusi.org for translating the word ‘hope’ into Kiswahili.