Last month I was in Ruzizi plain, in South Kivu, in one of the villages where thousands of displaced people are trying to survive far from their houses, their farms and for many of them, far from the only place they will ever call home.
The village where I went was a lovely little one, spread along either side of the road to Uvira, the local administrative center. I could not believe that with its 50,000 inhabitants, it was one of the biggest towns in the area. But even that population figure is new. Actually it was not always like this. Three months ago, before the national army launched an offensive to disarm militia groups by force, almost 20,000 of the present population were back home in their villages, up in the surrounding hills.
No one could tell that they would need to quit the cooler hill climate they are so proud of for the suffocating temperature of the plain, nor that they would need to stay close to the road in fear of potential attacks or reprisals from either militia groups or the largely undisciplined army, which is backed by the same UN Peacekeeping mission who are here to protect civilians.
I came to that village for a specific piece of work but I was also curious to meet people whose voices we never hear back in Kinshasa, the capital city, where I’m from.
Hearing from the internally displaced
I wanted to know how those women, men and children were living, obliged as they were to stay in a village that was not expecting them. I wanted to hear directly from them if they were prepared to be collateral damage in a war that, to hear the radio and TV broadcasts of some politicians, will end instability in the east and restore in our country?
But what I heard was not that, not at all. Instead people told me how their lives had been torn apart, and they had been left wondering what it was all for, and what they could do now.
Riziki told me that the war forced her to leave our village for the third time. When the fighting came they had to run. They only had time to take the children and had to leave all their possessions. She knows that they will have nothing to go back to; they are burning the houses, house by house so that nothing remains. There is fighting. Some people escape, others die. Her neighbors died. They were shot.
When the family came in July they tried to find a host family but couldn’t so they were living in the school. Now they are living in one room with five other families- they have no beds and no food.
The consequences of war
When the family arrived they were all healthy but now their health is getting very much worse – especially the children’s. They can’t sleep well because they are sleeping on the floor and they are all hungry.
Riziki ‘s daughter Zaina (9) died here one month ago while they were living in the school. She told me:
“I don’t know what happened, she just died one night. I feel heartbroken. When I came here with my baby it was to protect her from the fighting – I am her mother, it was my duty to protect her, and yet she dies here in a place where we were supposed to be safe.
I have nothing to remind me of her except the memories in my mind. When I think about her I remember her as someone who was always happy, she was a big singer, always singing – in the church, in the house. She was a comedian, a big joker; the house was always lively when she was around. When I look at my husband or the other children Zaina’s face comes back to me. She looked like my husband.”
Would I not ask for justice?
After hearing Riziki’s story, and many more like them, I’ve been thinking: what would I do without those I really love in my life? Could I accept that they might just be statistics, collateral damage in a war where even those who are supposed to protect us are failing to do so? Would I not ask for justice?
If the decision-makers asked Riziki or me, I’m sure we would like to be the ones deciding about our lives, determining the fate of those we love. I’m certain we would ask the same people to tell us how far they themselves were ready to go for their country. And more than that, we would want to know this: what can a person do to get their love back, when the ones who matter most are gone?
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