The horrors of war are reflected in the eyes of children who see friends and relatives killed.
“My aunt cried, but I never did.”
Look into the eyes of 11-year-old Justivel Lubata and try to imagine how he felt when he witnessed the shooting of his uncle, but you will find no answer. Is he proud of his man-like stamina? Or was he too deeply shocked to react? Eighteen months later, his gaze still reveals no reaction to the first of the countless killings he was to watch during the 1998-99 civil war in The Republic of Congo.
But the memories live in his mind.
“I see pictures at night,” Justivel murmurs.
Nobody knows how many of the country’s 2.6 million inhabitants were killed during the brief but vicious war, but as it drew to an end, 810.000 people were displaced, and thousands maimed.
“They shot so many people,” says Justivel’s friend, 9-year-old Cynthia Joel Landau. “Sometimes we had to step over them when we walked.”
“The Walk” is a euphemism for the prelude to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters ever to strike this fertile land. As rebels from the southern districts launched a surprise attack on the capital, Brazzaville, in Dec. 1998, the entire population of the city’s southern parts fled, fearing reprisals from government forces. In two days, 350,000 people streamed out of their homes and poured down the main road towards the south of the country.
Almost immediately, thousands of rebels followed in unruly retreat, hotly pursued by ruthless government soldiers – none of them showing any concern for the plight of the civilian victims of their strife. As the conflict spread south, each devastated city or village added its citizens to the number on the run, estimated at close to a million before the end of 1998.
Justivel was 9 years old when he and his family set out for safety. “I carried a sack on my head with my clothes and some pots for cooking. My younger brother Mariot carried dishes and his clothes.” In three days the children covered 150 kilometers trying to escape the militiamen and the pursuing soldiers.
Justivel has no memory of any special reason why rebels shot his uncle, but he does remember, “we had to leave him in the road and then we continued. I saw too many dead people.” Three days later, when his family reached the southern town of Bele, it was still quiet.
But “soon the war also arrived there,” he says. “We had to sleep in the hospital because there were helicopters shooting and our house burned.”
For months, the little boy woke up at night, screaming from ghastly images returning to haunt him. “When I met him half a year later,” recalls Sister Marie-Therese Nkuka, who is helping traumatized children, “somebody turned on the ventilation fan in the ceiling, and the boy shot straight under the table. He thought it was the helicopters returning.”
Justivel and his family finally managed to slip across the border to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were housed in a refugee camp.
They were the lucky ones. The vast majority of the refugees only found shelter in the giant rain forest of Congo, where they survived on roots, berries and whatever game or fish they could bag.
Accusing them of connivance with the rebels, government soldiers sealed off access to the forest, thus barring all emergency assistance from humanitarian organizations.
After a peace agreement was signed in Sept., 1999, and the siege lifted, the remaining famished and sickly refugees finally stumbled out of the forest in a quest to regain a normal life.
Initially the task overwhelmed aid agencies. In Brazzaville, the returnees found their houses looted if not gutted. Outside the capital, most cities in the southern part of the country, which used to house the bulk of the country’s agricultural and industrial infrastructure, had been destroyed. Aid agencies have been battling to bring relief – food, medicines, tents, building materials – across downed bridges and ruined roads to burnt-out hospitals and looted villages.
By last September, they clocked their first real victory: “We are closing more emergency feeding centres than we are opening,” noted the weekly meeting of UN and NGO relief agencies in Brazzaville.
Consequently, some of the agencies are getting ready to leave. However, “the humanitarian crisis might be over, but the human problems are still here,” says sister Nkuka. Last year, she started hosting traumatized and orphaned children.
“We do everything possible to breathe life into them – we sing, we dance, we give them lots of physical contact. We knew they were slowly responding when some of them came with a demand for learning to read and write. So we started teaching them right from the ground.”
“Thousands of children have had no schooling for three to four years,” explains Seraphin Bhalat, general secretary for the ecumenical aid organization ACTA, the local partner of Action by Churches Together.
“At least half of our schools are in ruins, and teachers have been killed or have fled to other parts of the country,” he explains.
The civil war of December 1998 was the third since May 1997, each one more brutal than the one before. And while everyone agrees that the ferocity of the latest war has resulted in a genuine desire for peace in all sections of the population, deeply rooted divisions between northern and southern ethnic groups are not resolved. The fear of a renewed outbreak of violence is palpable in every encounter with the Congolese population.
Another special ACTA program is targeting the former militias. The older boys have all been fighting, and need special attention. Local ACTA church partner Action de Securite d’Urgence, ASU, has pointed the way forward in taking ex-militias off the streets with a gardening program.
“It serves a dual purpose, because all seeds for the next harvest have been either eaten or destroyed. Our program is preventing the recurrence of hunger at the same time as it gives the ex-militias meaningful work,” says ASU director Thomas Ndandou.
ACT International issued an appeal for the Republic of Congo for $700,000 (U.S.) last June. So far, only about 7 per cent of that amount has been raised.
Peter Tygesen is a Danish freelance journalist. This article was distributed by the World Council of Churches.