Oxfam press officer Rebecca Wynn reflects on one of Congo’s hidden tragedies – the wasted potential of people trapped by relentless conflict.
The children I am meeting here in Kibati are at school, but they get no education. The school is where they sleep. It’s their home. Ever since they fled from the violence in their villages, it’s where they have slept, with leaves as their mattresses and their bodies snuggled close.
A blackboard hangs on the wall, unused. On the left-hand side of it, scrawled in chalk, is a roll call from some weeks ago. On that day, 37 children attended school, seven were absent. Now every schoolchild is absent. The classrooms are homes for Congo’s displaced, who have nowhere else to go. It’s a devastatingly sad scene.
People talk about Congo’s massive potential – its minerals, its rainforest, its fertile land. In this classroom, I feel like I’m confronted with the most important part of that potential – its people.
Wherever I’ve been in Congo in the last few weeks, I’ve been struck by the energy and sheer resilience of the people I’ve met. These people want to go places and improve their lot, but are continually being pushed backwards by Congo’s relentless violence.
In the classroom, I meet Hyirabazumgu. She is 45 and has seven children. The youngest is six and the oldest is 22. She is animated and her eyes spark as she tells me how she left her home.
"What can you do when death is at your door – you just have to run," she says, " We could see and hear bullets and shelling coming from the volcano and the national park. We knew we had to get out of there. We grabbed children, and those who had time grabbed their possessions."
She is clearly concerned about her children’s future.
"We were beginning to improve our lives. I had bought iron sheeting for my roof and was sending my kids to school. To sleep and live in a classroom is the saddest thing. Our children are here doing nothing."
She points to one girl walking with a young boy. The girl is clutching a plastic bag and her eyes scan the ground.
"You see that girl over there – she was talking her national exams. She is 18 and clever. Now she is just idling here, with nothing to do."
There are two camps in Kibati, but Oxfam is working outside them within the community for the simple reason that this is where many of the displaced people are.
There are 21 villages of Kanyaruchinya, which surround the Kibati camps. Four of these villages are completely empty and the rest are full of thousands of people who have been forced to run from their homes. The population here was just under 19,000 people before the recent troubles, but an estimated 50,000 people have arrived in the camps and villages here over the last month. Of the families here, 65 percent are hosting displaced people. But many people – like Hyirabazumgu – are living in public spaces such as schools, churches and orphanages.
Our response has focused on health and hygiene because disease can spread easily with such a massive influx of people. We are digging more latrines in the area and have set up committees for hygiene promotion.
But we are also trying to expand people’s options. The Kibati area is close to the front line and shots are heard regularly. A new camp, Mugunga 3, will be opening in Goma for people who want to leave Kibati, and Oxfam is responsible for supplying clean water and good sanitation for the new camp.
Speaking to people in Kibati, there are mixed feelings about moving. They will be further away from their homes and fields where some people return during the day, but at the same time they do not feel safe in Kibati. It will be people’s choice whether they want to move or not – and we expect that some will choose to stay. We will be continuing our work with people who choose to do so.
Hyirabazumgu says that she might move to another location, as she has been scared by some of the violence that has erupted around this supposed place of sanctuary, but most of all she wants to go home
"We want to go home to our villages. We want peace and security in our villages,’’ she says.
It is for this reason that alongside our humanitarian work to keep people alive now, Oxfam is calling on the international community to pile on the diplomatic pressure and secure an end to the conflict. We want Hyirabazumgu to return home.