By Espérance Nzigire in Goma (AR No 251, 22-Mar-10)
Children living on the streets have become such a problem in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, that a group of former street children have got together to tackle the issue themselves.
John Zalomba, the coordinator of the group, called Anti-Gang, says that it was set up in order to persuade these children to abandon the street for a more settled life.
He says the group offers counselling and support to children who want a fresh start, and also tries to raise awareness among the media and the authorities that there is a real need to find a solution to what he describes as a "scourge against society".
Orphaned or abandoned children living on the streets are particularly noticeable in Goma, which has been at the heart of ethnic fighting in the region for many years.
Many of the children have no option but to do physically-demanding jobs while others have turned to crime to support themselves.
Now, as the city adjusts to peace, it is struggling to work out a way of addressing this legacy of the fighting.
"We have come up with strategies to put an end to the phenomenon of street children, but until now we still aren't fully in control of the situation," admitted an agent of the city administration, who asked to remain anonymous.
He added that the regional government lacks the resources to deal with the problem.
Officially, the government estimates that 500 children are living on the streets of Goma, but the actual number could be much higher, since many of them prefer to hide during the day and only come out at night.
Recently, Goma's mayor, in cooperation with the local police force, launched a campaign aimed at tracking down street children and sending them off to Kinyogote, a town 17 kilometres away on the shores of Lake Kivu.
The authorities hoped that, by taking the children out of Goma and placing them in a more remote location with few inhabitants, they could encourage them to change their lifestyle.
But, according to Badibanga Pascal, who runs the Tumani Centre for street children in Goma, inadequate housing and insufficient food meant that the operation was a failure. Many of the children made it back to Goma's streets.
Conflict has brought widespread poverty to the region, making it harder for parents to support their offspring and eroding the role that the extended family traditionally played in bringing up children who have been orphaned.
Amani, a 16-year-old boy who has been living on the streets of Goma for more than eight years, said that he was abandoned by his father because of poverty.
"My young brother and I decided to turn to the street, because our mother had no job and could not support us," he said. "I feel really singled out when I get called a street child because I didn't want to end up on the street."
Dorcas, 14, has been living rough four years. He says that he has nowhere else to go.
"Two years after my mother died, my father got married to another woman, and this woman - my stepmother - started abusing me," he said. "She beat me every day for no reason."
Rape, another product of the war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, is also one of the reasons that children end up on the streets.
Bizimana, 15, was born after his mother was raped when fighting broke out in his village of Masisi in 1993. He says that he was abandoned at birth by his mother, who was ashamed by how he was conceived.
"When my grandmother told me the story of my life, I made a few unsuccessful suicide attempts," he said. "Our traditions reject children born from rape, so I was discriminated against by other children."
Outcast from society, Bizimana has been on the streets since he was ten.
"I retaliate for everything I had to go through as a child by stealing and raping," he said. "To get the courage and strength to do that, I use drugs."
Although some street children are engaged in crime, they all tend to be branded trouble-makers and criminals, and face persecution because of this.
But Cobra, a young man in his twenties and one of the leaders of the street children, justifies this behaviour as a natural response to how they have been treated.
"We have the right to live like any other person: eat, drink, dress and have fun," he said. "Of course, all this requires money, so we use force to get our hands on some money so that we can support ourselves."
Many here believe that since the local authorities have been incapable of resolving the problem, it is time that the international community weighed in.
"Considering the powerlessness of local as well as national authorities, it is now the international community's turn," one parent said. "It must get involved in the fight against poverty, since poverty is the main reason why our children end up on the streets."
Espérance Nzigire is an IWPR trainee in Goma. This story is part of a series produced by journalists who attended IWPR Netherlands recent international journalism course in Goma.