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.

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