DR Congo: Modest means in a massive crisis in the Kasai
War-wounded youths, separated children, the sick and the elderly have sought comfort at a compound in Kananga, the capital of Kasai Central Province. This is one of the five provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s central region struck by a year-long conflict between the military and a tribal militia.
The small church-run charity Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo (Spring of Life) owns the compound. The charity has deployed its modest means to help civilians devastated by violence that has killed thousands of people and uprooted 1.4 million from their homes. The conflict erupted in August 2016 following the death of a tribal chief in clashes with security forces in Kasai Province. The violence was sparked by the Government’s refusal to formally recognize the chief’s authority. The Kamuina Nsapu militia revolted and took up arms against the Government.
A large-scale humanitarian response is now under way in the violence-hit Kasai provinces, where communities and local aid organizations have been struggling to assist affected people.
Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo has helped hundreds of unaccompanied and distressed children to find their families. Its two-room dispensary offers treatment for minor ailments. A kitchen feeds the hungry, a clothes depot covers scarred bodies, and a handful of workers with paltry resources have helped 297 people, most of them minors, reunite with their families.
Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo’s response efforts may appear small, given the scale of the crisis. But the odds against the charity have been enormous. With no major funding streams, Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo relies on small donations from well-wishers to work in an environment fraught with conflict, insecurity and administrative hurdles.
Gregoire Kangodie, a social worker with Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo, said: “Tracing families scattered by violence in order to reunite them with their children has been an arduous job. Some families refuse to take back their children for having been arrested by the military and associated with militant groups. Such families fear reprisals from the armed groups and targeting by security forces.”
Dealing with the authorities to obtain the release of arrested minors under the military’s custody has also been difficult. The militia has, on some occasions, threatened Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo workers, accusing them of seizing children from their ranks. Kangodie says: “We’re apolitical, but we’re not always perceived as such. Some say we are siding with children who were part of militia groups.”
Between 40 and 60 per cent of the armed groups’ members are children, often below age 15, according to UNICEF statistics, which also show that more than 500 children have been used in combat or as human shields by the militia. At least 5,000 children have been separated from their families and risk being recruited by armed fighters or suffer violations and abuse.
“I pretended to be dead”
Survivors of the conflict have suffered deep physical and psychological scars. Bearing machete wounds on his back and neck, one 22-year-old man at Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo recounted surviving a dawn raid by armed men. “They surrounded our village and began to attack. They entered our house. They grabbed me and undressed me to my underwear. I was hit several times on the head and was struck on the neck with a machete,” he said. “I fell down and pretended to be dead. They gathered others and took them to a house and set it on fire. I lost my parents and my brother.”
Sitting on a wheelchair and with a broken leg, another victim, 28, recounted how he tried to resist attackers but was overpowered and badly beaten. “The militiamen attacked and looted our homes. When we tried to resist, we were attacked with machetes. Others were badly beaten and suffered fractures.”
A recent report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights describes instances of atrocious attacks against civilians. Between 12 March and 19 June, 251 people were killed, including 62 children, half of whom were younger than eight years old. The report calls for “safe and unrestricted access to information, sites and individuals deemed necessary” for the work of international experts on the Kasai crisis.
Mpokolo Wa Mwoyo is working with Médecins Sans Frontières to treat people wounded in the conflict and provide psychosocial support to vulnerable children. Only a few dozen people are still being cared for, as calm slowly returns to Kananga and displaced people begin to return home.
Humanitarian response to the Kasai crisis is gradually increasing. Aid organizations are deploying and stepping up assistance to the region, where insecurity and insufficient funding have constrained relief operations. The US$64.5 million emergency appeal launched in mid-April has so far received only 40 per cent funding.