Forgotten child soldiers are a hidden story

Debbie Gore - in Baracka, Democratic Republic of Congo

Jostling over crater-sized potholes, crammed into a beat up old Renault Espace with sweat impossibly stuck to my face, we made our way through the Eastern region of Fizi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nestled picturesquely next to Lake Tanganyika, Fizi was the scene of intense fighting during the terrible 'Great War of Africa here between 1998 and 2003. Memorial placards, with macabre images of women and children screaming, are displayed at every village. By 2008 the war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation,making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II.

My Congolese travelling partner Cissa Wa Numbe tells me wearily that the village memorials are a  'constant reminder to protect peace, people want peace here we 're tired of war'.

Congo has no roads to speak of, traversing rivers and negotiating rocks, driving over impassable contours is commonplace. The driver laughs at my apprehension when we approach a 10 foot descent across a small river.

We pass streams of women balancing sugar cane on their heads, men pushing broken bicycles overloaded with sacks of the staple food cassava. The only other cars we see for miles are the plush UN white Toyota land cruisers. Their pristine colour and air conditioning is in laughable contrast to life outside.

Small houses made of mud and wood line the landscape where women pour over washing and preparing food. The scene is broken up only by churches and the occasional makeshift school. Children walking back from school play in the rivers to cool down while women dressed in bright colours sit hunched, washing in groups, and gossiping.

Every woman for nearly 100 kilometres is working, either walking for miles with food strapped to their heads, or carrying sacks of wood in searing temperatures, with no men to accompany them. We stop at a passing place as children stare and laugh at the 'Mysungo', white person in Swahili and in a clearing under a leafy, shaded tree some 40 men sit relaxed sipping beer. .

We approached our destination of Baracka as the sky roared overhead, the start of another rainy season night.

Mai Mai,the name of an infamous local militia, is plastered on the walls of the town hall and an armed child soldier, aged barely 15, met us at the gate of the village to check our papers. Fear of reprisals from militia have forced remote regions to rely on these local safeguards.

We drove slowly past rows of shacks with paint cracking on the sides, where people are selling everything from phone credit and hats to dried fish and local starchy foods.

The rainy season downpour came down in bath loads as we found shelter in a monastery. The Catholic priests welcome us into a candle lit room filled with posters of past Popes. A young priest befriends me and explains the work of the church in this village, the world seems to have forgotten or never known. He is helping child soldiers to be rehabilitated into society. He says most families don't want them back and so they are either forced back into the militia or stay with the church.

With no electricity or running water we sat down for a meal of fried bananas, slapping mosquitoes away with our hands. My first few days in the country had showed me here in the Heart of Darkness that even in the depths of the rain forest, where simply feeding your family is a daily struggle, most people are welcoming and will give you the live chicken they were planning to cook for food just because you are a visitor.

The next day that chicken squawked in the back seat all the way back along Lake Tanganyika before our next rest stop.

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1 Response to "Forgotten child soldiers are a hidden story"

chris's picture

chris

Wed, 07/09/2008 - 14:03
<p><strong><u>Chris Gaynor</u></strong></p> The description and information in this piece are excellent. I like the description of the plush UN Land cruisers, really gives you an indication to the contrast of what is going on outside. Hope the trip is going well. This site not only has the power to inform, but the power to chuckle!