DR Congo

The tragedy of the DR Congo and the situation of the children

The Democratic Republic of Congo is regarded as a collapsed state. Years of fighting, involving many different interest groups, have completely destroyed the third largest country in Africa. The country's poisoned chalice, ironically is its abundance of natural resources. In this context, please read an interview with the director of SOS Children's Villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Marthe Kangene, which we conducted three years ago. There have been no significant improvements to the situation of the country's children - on the contrary. That is why another SOS Children's Village is currently being set up in Kinshasa.

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.

The SOS Children's 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 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 children cope with day-to-day difficulties? Marthe Kagane, director of SOS Children's Villages 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?

There is 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.

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?

The situation of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo is 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?

About 300 children and youths live in Bukavu, more than 230 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-like long-term care for children in need.

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 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 Children's Village 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. 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.

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. =B4

In 1989, 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. As a result of the instability, it was not possible to complete the SOS Children's Village Uvira until 2006. Construction work has been taking place on another SOS Children's Village in the capital Kinshasa since the middle of 2008.