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Life in a state of emergency: Congo, Africa


The Tragedy of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the situation of SOS Children in the country

The Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa is on the bitter list of countries where years of civil warfare between rivalling tribes, militias, warlords and troops from neighbouring countries have plunged the civilian population into misery and despair. The resulting number of victims adds a historic dimension to this human tragedy; no armed conflict since World War II has taken such a heavy toll on human lives. An estimated 3.8 million people have died as a result of violent conflict since 1998; they were either killed in warfare or died of hunger and diseases given the total breakdown of supplies and services.

Although a peace agreement was struck in 2002, the process of pacifying the area of the Great Lakes has not been completed up to this day. About 13,000 blue helmets are supposed to provide East Congo with peace and stability, but there is still insecurity and anarchy, and there are still outbreaks of violence, attacks on the civilian population, and the country's east and north are de facto ungovernable.

Fifteen years ago, an SOS Children's Village in Bukavu, a school, and a kindergarten in the eastern troubled province of South-Kivu opened their gates. This was followed by the opening of a youth facility and a medical centre, which helps improve the population's catastrophic medical care situation in the area. In 1997, an emergency village was established in Uvira, 120 km south of Bukavu, to accommodate war orphans and abandoned children, to care for them and, if possible, help them find their families again. Uvira also houses a primary school, a kindergarten and a medical centre. Right up to this day, final completion of construction works was not possible given the insecure situation in the region. Both locations also include an SOS Social Centre offering psychological counselling, support in questions on health care issues including HIV/AIDS, and support of community activities.

The villages in Bukavu and Uvira became repeatedly caught in the whirl of political events, evacuation plans had to be prepared, the facilities were looted, militias and soldiers used the SOS Children's Village premises as temporary warehouses.

What is the situation like today, what are the population's prospects in the region of South-Kivu, what are the living conditions for children like, how do co-workers, SOS mothers and SOS children cope with day-to-day difficulties? Marthe Kagane, director of SOS Children in the country, the head office of which is located in Bukavu, answers these and other questions.

What is the overall situation like in eastern Congo?

The situation in the region [South-Kivu, editor's remark"> is calm at the moment. However, there is a strong military presence in and around the SOS Children's Villages. This gives people a feeling of uncertainty of not knowing what the next day may bring. It's neither war, nor peace. Anything can happen anytime. Due to this climate of instability and massive refugee movements, there is also a steady increase in the cost of living. Compared to Uvira, the situation in Bukavu is extremely critical and dangerous; there is a lot of crime, frequent looting, rape and murder.

Is there any kind of social, economic and political infrastructure in place people can rely on?

There is only a fragile social infrastructure in place. This actually only consists of a group of volunteers from South-Kivu who have joined to help people in need. These volunteers try to prepare lists of war victims in order to have them officially registered. They organise relief and support for people through donors both within and outside the region and/or Congo.

Do people have access to medical care, education and training facilities etc.?

No, not at all. There are practically no public hospitals in operation. There is lack in human resources, medical equipment, drugs and first-aid equipment at the few hospitals still operating. Private clinics provide better services, but most people can't afford to be treated there.

Are there many refugees in South-Kivu?

Yes, too many. Most are women, children or older people. Besides many people fleeing ethnic conflict within Congo, there also many refugees from Rwanda and Burundi.

What does the general situation of children living in Congo look like?

Bashizi Mugisho, village director of SOS Children's Village Bukavu, describes the situation of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo as extraordinary difficult. Their lives are dominated by poverty, insecurity, and hopelessness. The children neither have a future nor prospects. The majority does not attend school. However, even those attending school are being told by grown-ups that it does not pay off, as many who have completed school are unemployed and look for jobs. This is all contributes to increasing the number of street kids throughout the country, especially in the eastern regions. The streets kids, called Maibobo, live in constant fear of violence or even murder. They are especially exposed and vulnerable to diseases. Due to steady deterioration of the situation, parents are giving up on their responsibility. One of the results is increasing prostitution among under-aged girls who try to make a living for themselves or their entire family.

How many children in the eastern provinces and the entire country are in need of long-term care?

I don't have the exact statistics to hand, but I'm sure there are thousands, thousands of children who are in desperate need of out-of-home care and a new home as they were uprooted, orphaned and abandoned.

How many children are currently being cared for in Uvira and Bukavu?

254 children and youths live in Bukavu, 209 live in Uvira.

What is the children's social background like? Are they war orphans, not being cared for because of poverty, disease etc.?

The majority of children at the SOS Children's Villages share the same fate - they have been orphaned through war. The majority of biological parents care for their children despite poverty and increasing misery, although the children can't go to school.

Are the children at the SOS Children's Villages in need of specific psychological care given the violent experience of war and permanent insecurity?

Yes, some children have been heavily traumatised. They show signs of nervousness and strong restlessness or other behavioural problems, and there are even suicide attempts.

Are there any other organisations caring for orphaned children?

Yes, most of these facilities are run by nuns who care for orphaned and abandoned children drawing on financial support by UNICEF and private donors, mostly in camps. SOS Children's Villages is the only privately-run organisation offering family-based long-term care for children in need.

Do the local authorities support SOS Children's Villages?

There is a good relationship with the local authorities. The authorities cover the cost for water and power supplies in the two SOS Children's Villages, and they also grant tax relief on some goods and services.

Can SOS Children's Villages be considered a "safe haven"?

Yes, I think so. You can tell by the fact that people often seek refuge in the SOS Children's Villages when fighting breaks out. We are usually respected by the different conflict parties, even if soldiers and militias repeatedly have taken temporary possession of SOS facilities. SOS Children's Village Bukavu is located on a hill, which is why it is considered a favourable strategic location. These "military occupations" are usually unproblematic. There was one exception to that: a misdirected bullet killed a child in 1996. The situation of soldiers running around with their weapons truly weighs heavily on our children's minds.

What future prospects do SOS youths have who are leaving the SOS Children's Village?

There are actually no real future prospects. The labour market is fairly restricted; there are barely any job openings. Besides, it is extremely difficult to find training courses and training facilities for SOS youths where they can acquire qualifications for their future jobs. Sometimes the national director or village director is successful in finding respective facilities; however, all in all, the outlook is relatively grim.

Do many people from the vicinity make use of the SOS Social Centres and SOS Medical Centres?

Many people from the neighbouring communities come to the medical centre [in Bukavu, editor's remark">. It enjoys a good reputation which makes many people attend who live even more than ten kilometres away. Each month, more than 700 patients attend the medical centre. The most common diseases treated include malaria, influenza, gastrointestinal illnesses, urogenital diseases and pneumonia. Medical services include first aid, general practitioning, laboratory analysis, paediatrics, gynaecology, and, since 2004, pre-natal examinations. The centre also offers comprehensive counselling services; mothers and children receive psychological support, and there are awareness activities on hygiene measures and HIV/AIDS, alcohol and drugs.

When will the new SOS Children's Village in Uvira be completed?

We expect completion of construction works in June 2006.

Do you feel the international community should be more supportive of your country?

Yes, especially when it comes to conflict resolution with our neighbouring countries. The international community could also help the Democratic Republic of Congo with rebuilding the school system, the medical care infrastructure, transport infrastructure, and especially with the broad recognition of governmental control throughout the country [Head of State and Government Joseph Kabila is not in control of all parts of the country. The eastern and northern provinces are controlled by governors who act independently from the government in the country's capital of Kinshasa. Editor's remark.">

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