This last Tuesday, the 16th of June, communities across sub-Saharan Africa remembered the massacres of Soweto township children by the South African Apartheid regime in 1976. On this annual day of remembrance, organizations in Uvira dedicated to the protection of Congolese children organized various events to highlight the precarious position of children in eastern Congo.
The dangers Congolese children face are probably not unfamiliar to many reading this blog. Congolese fortunate to pass into adulthood have typically navigated their way through a maze of threats against their well-being; forced recruitment into armed militias, sexual violence, untreated illnesses, hunger, and the overwhelming regional insecurity in eastern Congo all contribute to a situation demanding better protection of children and efforts to unite them. The theory among local activists dedicated to the protection and promotion of children is that events organized to educate children and introduce them to methods of protecting themselves make meaningful steps not only towards limiting conflict in eastern Congo (children continue to form large parts of non-state armed groups) but also teach children to live safer lives within the surrounding conflict. The reality that hostilities here are not on their way to disappearing forces children to have strong defenses in order to allow them the opportunity to grow up and hopefully enjoy a more peaceful future. The urgency of similar initiatives is clear. Offensives by rebel groups like the CNDP, LRA, and FDLR occurring over the last 6 months in North and South Kivu have shown that the occupation of villages is only one of numerous goals of armed groups. Rebel groups typically have as a periphery goal the mass victimization of children. Kidnapping children from their homes to fight or to act as ammunition porters, sex slaves, or domestic servants is still the norm. Educational initiatives and the encouragement of more cohesive communities, especially among vulnerable children, have offered a way to cut away at this trend.
On the 16th this year, I was in Sange village, about 50km north of Uvira, to view activities planned by CEJEDER, a local organization advocating for children’s protection. As Sange is centrally located within Mai-Mai and FDD (Burundian rebels) territory, children there have traditionally faced forced recruitment and sexual violence at the hands of rebels. The prolonged conflict in Sange has also unfortunately left countless orphans, all whom lack the guidance and security usually provided by parent-run households. I saw the seriousness of the insecurity last November in Sange when rebel-led killings occurred early morning before demonstrations planned for the ‘Journée Mondiale pour le Refus de la Misère.’ Fortunately, activities passed well and without other incidents, and we had hundreds of children arriving to demonstrate their solidarity and their common interest improving life in Sange.
The events planned for this year’s June 16 commemoration by CEJEDER included theater performances, a football match, and a discussion/debate concerning issues affecting children in Sange. The theater piece concerned familial relations within child-led households, and some of the difficulties that arrive in daily decision-making (e.g. Who from our house will go to school this term? What are the consequences in sending your siblings to steal for your family’s food supply? What are the consequences in sending children to agricultural fields alone to cultivate?). Theater has a unique place in Congolese culture, and children react very positively to seeing their daily dramas played out before their eyes, especially when the theatre offers alternative conclusions, advice, and ways of thinking about a particular problem. Amisi Pele, from CEJEDER, told me that kids often laugh along with the theater but later begin to reevaluate their own situations when the pieces reflect parts of their lives. He went further to say that bit by bit, community interventions like those of the theater group in Sange, ‘Aurore du Sud,’ work to break down destructive practices and encourage communities to develop support structures for children, often a community’s most vulnerable population.
Not all the events this year had a ‘point’ as clearly defined as theater and group discussions. Some events (football match, beignet-eating contest, a meal with the MONUC soldiers, etc.) are not designed to have a tangible result, but just to let kids in Sange have a breath of fresh air, a reason to relax, and a break from the overwhelmingly difficult lives they live in South Kivu. The value of this is obviously open to attack by more pragmatic thinking, but, in my opinion, it was one of the best parts of this year’s June 16th commemoration. It is heartening to see a besieged population retaining the ability to let down their defense mechanisms and enjoy themselves, even if only for a few hours. Hopefully, future local and international efforts to pacify the East and bring some security to places like Sange will allow this feeling to be more than temporary. After too many years, a little relief is more than owed to Congolese unfortunate enough to be living on one of the world’s great [military and political] battlefields.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Jun 22nd, 2009