Traditionally, extended families in the countryside of the Congo provide a wide network of support to distant cousins, elders, or other relatives down on their luck. But "social disarticulation," or tearing apart of the traditional family structure, is one of the results of the protracted conflict in the Congo. Today children live, work, and beg on the streets of Bukavu.
Refugees International met with the local non-governmental agencies (NGOs) that provide limited housing, schooling and food to approximately 30 percent of these youngsters. The World Food Programme (WFP) donates food when it is available, and some international NGOs have been involved in addressing some of the issues street children have, but the response has been very minimal and by no means reaches all youngsters. A number of Congolese NGOs are attempting to mitigate the effects of conflict and the lack of any kind of safety net for these children by providing basic shelter, one meal a day, and some literacy training. None of the organizations have been able to address the complex root causes or prevent the increase in the number of street children.
A local NGO leader who routinely tours the jails for children detained without trial found Hugo and 17 other young boys and brought them to his center in Bukavu. RI spoke with Hugo, a young boy who came from his village to Bukavu after his mother died. When he was 14 years old, he was recruited by the RCD in Bukavu. The soldiers forced him to do menial tasks, including the laundry. "One day, a military chief made me wash his clothes, and someone stole the clothes, and I got whipped and then they took me to jail."
The complexity of the situation for these youths is further illustrated by the number of categories that exist to describe them: children in the street (during the day), children of the street (day and night), children in prison, child laborers, child prostitutes, children accused of sorcery, demobilized child soldiers, displaced children, unaccompanied displaced children, abandoned children and unaccompanied refugee children left behind when their families repatriated to Rwanda or Burundi. There is also a new category for the child orphaned by AIDS.
Some of the children, like Josephine, are often of more than one category. She told RI, "Four years ago, I left my village during massacres. They killed two of my brothers and my sister-in-law. My parents fled to another direction." Josephine, then 15 years old, fled to Bukavu with four of her young nieces in tow. She found one of these centers where she is now living with her four young nieces and studying. She told RI that she feels safe. Generally the situation is worse for girls than for boys. While initially it looks like there are fewer girls on the streets, an international NGO representative told RI there are fewer girls in the streets because not only are they more likely to be working at home, and not forced out, but if they are sent away, they become prostitutes and are off the streets and into a brothel quickly. One international NGO reported that girls were difficult to trace or find because they find men to take them, and so do not end up sleeping in the markets like boys.
"We had the problem before the war, but now it's gotten worse," one local NGO doctor told RI, "These kids are traumatized, some of them saw their parents killed. They have seen so much violence that that is how they will respond." The local NGOs who are working with this population all told RI that they needed training and resources to address this situation.
In June of this year, Olara Otunnu, Special Representative for the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, and Carol Bellamy, Executive Director for UNICEF visited Bukavu. As Mr. Olunnu told the Security Council upon his return, "40 percent of the country's children are seriously malnourished, the incidence of child labor (especially at mining sites), child prostitution and street children have sharply increased, and in the past 10 years, infant mortality has doubled . . . Every where I went, I received consistent reports of massive recruitment of child soldiers."
The high-level UN visit left many in the region hopeful that there will be increased attention on the status of children affected by conflicts in the Congo. Refugees International welcomes the interest of the international community for the children in the streets of Bukavu, and hopes that words are followed with real assistance for this the smallest problem in the Congo.
Refugees International has been monitoring the conflict in the Congo since the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994. RI will return to Eastern Congo in November.
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