Turn the page on poverty

News blog: our emergency response to the crisis in Congo

Latest from Congo: Francoise's story - Rebecca Wynn - November 19, 2008


Francoise and her son Stephen. Photo: Rebecca Wynn/Oxfam .



Francoise, 32, is newly displaced. She arrived in Kibati camp just three days ago, from Kiwanja, which is at the heart of the fighting, with her one son. She lost her four other children and her husband along the way. Here she tells her story to Rebecca Wynn, from Oxfam.

"There was fighting in my town Kiwanja. "Stay at home, hide under your beds, "said the announcement on the radio. We were hardly going to go out. The fighting was right in our neighbourhood. My children said they heard rockets. I had five children. Now I have one.

"After a while, I wanted to get out of the house. It was stifling staying there and the shots were no longer ringing. I said we should head to the MONUC base – the base of the peacekeepers – they are supposed to keep us safe and this is our time of need. Other families had the same idea – we were caught in a throng. But there was this man – he was older and cynical. We are going into the lion's teeth, he said. And he was right. Before we got to the peacekeepers' base, the shots rang out again.

"The shots went right over our heads. The crowd scattered. One moment, I was with my husband and five children, the next second they were gone. All except one. Stephen – my six-year-old - was holding onto my skirt. I couldn't see my husband or other children anywhere. There was a mass of people in front of me. There were thousands, bumping into each other and trying to get away. I knew I had a choice. Run or die. I just needed to get of there. My heart was beating. My face was sweating. I didn't want to die.

"There was a motorbike taxi revving on the corner of the road. I called to the driver, "hey, mister, wait!" He looked up: "You got dollar?" I had fifteen dollar. All I had in the world. "I want to go to Goma", I said. "Will you take me? I have fifteen dollar." He chewed his lip. "Goma is twenty" he said. "Do we have time to haggle? Please mister, have some humanity. I don't want my child to die."

"I got on the bike. All through the town there were scenes of destruction. Did I see dead bodies? Yes. Not just one, many, many, many dead. Boys and men, their bodies lay on the ground. There were corpses of boys of fourteen - like my oldest son – and men of forty - like my husband. I don't know whether they were among the dead. I heard screams of women. These armed men rape women and even young girls. Where is my poor sweet 16-year-old girl, I thought. Poor Marie, who cooked and cleaned with me, where is she? I didn't want her innocence lost.

"Other people were leaving too. Some people had no transport and had to walk, or run. They had bundles of food and clothes. Some dropped their bundles in the rush and there was no time to pick them up. Your possessions or your life – what are you going to choose? There were old people, young people, pregnant women. Other people had managed to get into the back of trucks – packed tight body-to-body but moving out of danger faster than the people on the road. It was horrible to see my beautiful town in chaos. Kiwanja is a cosmopolitan place. Many people from different areas of eastern Congo go there. My husband and me grew up on Idjwi island on Lake Kivu. We married on the island. We went to Kiwanja for work.

"It took me four hours to get to Goma. All throughout the journey, on the bumpy roads, I was thinking am I dead, is this real? I was in such a state of shock. I don't think my heart stopped beating the whole way. I held my son close to me.

"There is nothing in Goma. No relatives, no friends. I am in Kibati camp, which is in a scrap of land north of the city. I'm living in a tarpaulin hanger, a huge white tent, with around 50 other people. There are clothes and blankets all round. There's no dignity. No privacy. If I'm lucky, I will be given some tarpaulin and banana leaves and will be able to build my own shelter. That's what counts as luck now. I have been here for three days. I only had the clothes that I was wearing. The women here have scraped together and given me a fresh skirt and some clothes for my son.

"I keep thinking of my four lost children. The doctor has given me medicine to calm my nerves. Every time I think of them, my heart skips a beat. I had two teenage boys - one fourteen and another thirteen. They used to play football outside our home. They could be dead. They could be forced to fight as child soldiers. My husband spoke a lot about forced conscription into the militia groups. It was something that he feared. He thought it might happen to him too, as well as the boys. I also had a little three-year-old boy. How on earth can he fend for himself? I hope that my husband managed to scoop him up and protect him.

"I have dreams, not nightmares. I play that scene again. We are near the MONUC base. This time though I hold on to all of my children, keeping them close to me. Stay with me! Hold your brother's hand. Keep your sister close. It's when I wake up, that the nightmare starts because my half-awake mind forgets what has happened and I think that I'm going to wake up and see them again. Then I realise they are gone.

"People say that this camp is not safe. Women warn me not to go into the banana fields and collect food because of all the men with guns around. There have been reports of rape and women are scared. But what can I do? My son needs to eat. I can't eat. I've completely lost all appetite. The worry and the trauma eats me. The women here say that I'm getting thin. But my son must eat, if not me – for him I will risk the armed men.

The camp is on the frontline. Before I came, there was a clash between the Congolese army and the rebels close by. People from here fled into Goma town for a night. Some slept in public buildings like schools and churches, but many slept on the dirt roads under the stars. They came back to the camp the day after. A roof over your head is better than a dirt road.

But I'm not scared of the frontline. I keep thinking that I want to cross it and try and go north again. Some of the people from Kiwanja went to Kinyandonyi, which is on the border near Uganda. I want to search for my family there. If there's a chance to see them again, I want to take it. But it is dangerous. I might get killed. Maybe I should stay here with my only son. What if I lose him on the way?

My life before was good. My husband and I had fields that we cultivated and the children all went to school. Now I have nothing. I have my young son, but no means to support him. It breaks my heart this war. We want to go home. We want to have peace. Will you help us with that please?

Latest from Congo: Just a boy – meeting child soldiers in the eastern Congo - Rebecca Wynn - November 11 2008


Life goes on: life in the camps. Photo: Oxfam


Fidel sits in front of me in an orange and brown striped T-shirt. It has a roller-skating motif and is emblazoned with the word freestyle. He's shy. His glowing eyes often look down and he occasionally bites his lip. He looks younger than his 14 years, around eight years old. It's difficult to match his face with the horrible story he tells me. Fidel is a former child soldier, but looks like any other kid.

Fidel had an 18 year-old brother who deserted the Mai-Mai, one of the eastern Congo's multitude of armed factions. Men from the group came looking for his brother at family home, but he wasn't there. Fidel was. They decided to take him instead.

"My mother begged and cried" he says, "The rebels said they'd spare me, if my mum paid them $100. But we were poor and didn't have the money."

As he was snatched away, his mother screamed. The soldiers said that they would kill her if she didn't shut up.

He finds it difficult to play still, he says. Even though he is now in safe place, he still has the memories.

"I used to carry ammunition for the soldiers as they fought on the frontline. One day I saw 60 bodies dead in the battlefield, I knew then I needed to escape or I'd end up dead myself."

After six months of enduring beatings with sticks, Fidel managed to escape one night when the soldiers were sleeping. He ran two miles in darkness of the night until he reached the base of MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission for Congo.

From there, he was taken to Cajed – a Congolese NGO – who rehabilitate child soldiers and other vulnerable children, and help them reintegrate back into the community. I am at the transitional centre run by Cajed and UNICEF that aims to help the children come to terms with their trauma.

After they leave the centre, Cajed keeps in contact with the boys and helps them adapt to civilian life. This is a difficult stage. In a country with grinding poverty and few job prospects, many child soldiers get re-recruited. Cajed's community work aims to prevent that, and Oxfam supports Cajed at this stage.

Alongside Fidel in the transitional centre, I meet Michel. Michel wears a T-shirt with a rhino on, and has flecks of vibrant green paint on his arms and forehead. He's been painting. But despite the familiar childhood activity he was in the midst of, his mood seems much darker than Fidel's. He spent four years with a rebel group and was forced to fight.

His story starts simply. He was abducted when he left his house to get some milk – he never returned. But then the horror escalates. Michel was taught to fight. He shot people and remembers jumping over bodies in the battlefield. His friend was taken prisoner by another an armed group. They discovered him hanging from a tree with blood pouring from his ears and his nose. It is horrific to learn that a 12-year-old child has seen such scenes.
The stories of children like Fidel and Michel painfully underscore why we need to find an end to horrific violence that has plagued the eastern Congo for too long. Child protection agencies have reported that Mai Mai militia in the town of Rutshuru recruited 37 children into military service the week before last. An estimated 150 children have been forcibly recruited since heavy fighting resumed in August.
Congo's armed men need to put their weapons down and find a peaceful solution to this conflict. 5.4 million people have died in Congo's decade long-war. The people of eastern Congo have suffered too much. We need to push our politicians to keep up the diplomatic pressure and find a political solution to this harrowing war. Only then will we be able to confine the stories of Fidel and Michel to the history books.

Names have been changed to protect identities

Latest from Congo: The war just got closer - Rebecca Wynn - November 10, 2008

The war just got closer. At least from the Goma perspective, for people in Kiwanja and Rutshuru the war ignited on Tuesday, crumbling a fragile ceasefire that had held for a little less than a week. And on Friday there was fighting in Kibati - an area where Oxfam is expanding its emergency response.

We had five staff there when the fighting broke out at 11.30am. They were beginning meetings with community members and were starting the digging of latrines. Then it happened. The shelling. "It was between the volcano and the hill near the camp, about two kilometres away," said Herman, an Oxfam public health promoter.

People were lining up to get their food distributions from the World Food Programme and they suddenly scattered. "They wanted to get to their shelters to grab their belongings," said Herman. "They knew they had to flee again". The team reported that they saw one man in his forties crying. "I fled Kibumba camp, and now they are chasing us again," he said. Another was more resigned. "We are used to this," he lamented. And sadly people are. Many people in the camp have fled for the third, fourth or fifth time.

Thousands ran towards Goma town. After a night of hiding with host families and in schools and churches, most have returned to the camp, but remain scared and vulnerable. Even before this latest incident the people in the camp were nervous. I can't even imagine the fear they feel now. The rebels have been pushed back northwards, but there are just 700 metres between the positions of the rebels and the Congolese government forces. Oxfam are back there with teams today - these people need our help, but it is far from easy in the current insecure environment.

Last weekend, the UK Foreign Minister David Miliband and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner visited Goma. They came with much diplomatic fanfare and media attention, and they said good things. They called for urgent reinforcement of the UN peacekeeping troops, but they have failed to follow through and effectively protect civilians. Today the European Union will meet to talk about the situation in the eastern Congo.

The people of Congo are still living on the edge with little protection. They urgently need the European Union to take action. Even before the fighting around Kibati, people were telling us about being attacked by armed groups when collecting firewood or food from the nearby fields.

Whilst European Ministers are closeted in debating chambers today, hundreds of thousands of eastern Congolese will be eking out an existence in the region's squalid camps. They need real action, not another mountain of words. The EU must agree to send additional troops to support the UN in eastern Congo and must push for a ceasefire, so we can get aid to the people that desperately need it.

Latest from Congo: Meeting an old friend - Rebecca Wynn - November 7, 2008

Charles KimanukaI am in Mugunga camp, near Goma. Not the place where you'd expect to find old acquaintances, but there he is. Charles. I see him. The tilt of his baseball camp, the mischievous glint of his eyes from behind those distinctive glasses, the smart checked shirt. That's him! That's Charles. And you might have recognised him too.

Charles Kimanuka is 78 year-old chef and lives in Mugunga camp with his six children. He's also a bit of a star. If you have walked down the South Bank in the last couple of weeks you might have seen him. His grinning face is on display outside the National Theatre as a part of the Rankin exhibition. When we launched the Rankin exhibition, we did it to raise awareness of a harrowing, but forgotten conflict. Since then, Congo's violence has increased even more horribly and Oxfam is doubling its emergency response to reach the newly displaced. But it's important to remember in the midst of this, that many of the people in Congo have been displaced for sometime. Charles has been at Mugunga camp, which is home to 17,000 people for more than a year. For a guy that used to cook steak and Marconi cheese for important people, living on the rations is far from ideal. But he struggles on, he laughs and he copes.

Mugunga is one of the four camps in Goma, where Oxfam have a long established water and sanitation response. The view is dotted with Oxfam water towers, Oxfam water pumps and latrines - hardly sexy, but an absolutely essential way of saving lives in the sprawling, cluttered environment of Mugunga camp. We have committees of people in the camp who help us spread public health messages and keep their environment clean. They tell people to wash their hands and make sure the latrines are clean. They inform women who have been raped where to get their anti-retrovirals. These community members are absolutely crucial to our response and we hope to mobilise similar groups in other camps like Kibati, where the latrines are dirty and a public health risk.

So how was Charles? He was okay. By some stroke of luck - and given the speed I was deployed to DRC on this emergency, trust me it's luck - I had a leaflet from the Rankin exhibition (complete with his grinning face) in my bag. I showed it to him. And he laughed. I asked how it was to have his face on show in London town. It was okay, but he had bigger priorities he wanted to share. He wants peace, an end to this fighting and he wants to go home. That's what he wanted me to share. We shook hands, not once, not twice, but maybe more than three times. We smiled and I left him with the leaflet. He showed it to his friends around him and they laughed too. He tucked it in his inside pocket. ‘Cheka Kidogo' - laugh a little. Going to the camps you realise the sentiment behind the Rankin exhibition more than ever before. These are people just like us. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, farmers, tailors, shop owners and chefs, but living in impossible circumstances. We can help them and we owe them that.



Latest from Congo: It's good to talk - Rebecca Wynn - November 6, 2008

Rebecca WynnIt probably has to count as one of the most bizarre experiences in my life. I was sitting cross-legged in Kibati camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a phone plastered to my ear, speaking to the BBC News Channel. I must have looked fairly out of place and I certainly began to attract some attention. At first from a few kids, and then from some women, and then I looked up mid-flow on a serious question and – gulp – a throng of more than 40 people were standing in a circle around me grinning and laughing.

I don't remember what the exactly the BBC question was or even how I answered, but do know that I somehow managed to subdue the fit of giggles. The laughter began between me and the crowd when I'd finished though. And I'm with the people of Kibati on this: I must have been a pretty weird sight!

It's somewhat odd doing media interviews in the midst of a camp. When I first got the call to do it I felt an enormous sense of guilt. Wasn't I supposed to be helping, meeting and learning from these people, should I really be taking external calls? Wasn't that a bit rude? After a talk to my boss, I managed to calm my English sensibilities. I just needed to let people know what the camp was like. And surely getting the message out is what's needed.

5 .4 million people have died in Congo's 10-year war – equivalent to the entire population of Denmark. For too long, this conflict has simmered unnoticed and unchecked. I am glad the world is paying attention now, but do wish it could have paid attention sooner.

Photo: Darren Fletcher /The Sun

The 7,000 people in Kibati camp are hungry and urgently need improvements in the water and sanitation. The toilets are dirty and there is no drainage and that is really needed with Goma's impermeable volcanic soil. Without it pools of stagnant water will collect, putting people at risk of water-borne diseases like cholera and dysentery. The pools are also breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. This is why Oxfam is beginning work in this camp. We aim to improve the level of sanitation people are receiving.

Kibati camp is on the frontline. If Congo's violence surges again, it is these people who will have to gather their belongings, carry their children and run. Precariously close to rebel territory and surrounded by the intimidating presence of government soldiers, it's not surprising that many people told me that their overwhelming need was for security. They were sick of living in banana leaf and tarpaulin shelters and of hiding in forests when the fighting sparked up again and again. They want to go back home. It's not certain what they will find there, but they were desperate for a normal, stable life. To cultivate fields rather than grasping for high energy biscuits from the World Food Programme.

This is why as well as doubling our emergency response to reach more than 200,000 people to keep them alive now, Oxfam is also piling on the diplomatic pressure. We need to find a sustainable end to the violence that has plagued Congo for so long. It might not be an easy task, but we owe it to the people of Kibati camp to keep trying.

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