Canadian aid worker Anne-Marie Connor is leading World Vision’s response to the chaos in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where the M23 rebel group captured the city of Goma on Nov. 20 before withdrawing on Saturday. More than 150,000 people were forced from their homes in the area and children – even toddlers – were found wandering completely alone.
It was Monday, Nov. 19. I was on the top floor of a hotel in Gisenyi, Rwanda. It’s just across the border from Goma, capital of the Congolese province of North Kivu. Visitors had come to learn about World Vision’s work, and I was translating the welcoming presentation from French into English.
Suddenly, right in the middle of a sentence, I stopped cold. From just across the border in the DRC, I heard a noise that just kept repeating: Thud. Thud. Thud.
I’ve never before had the misfortune of hearing the sounds of shelling and machine-gun fire. They shake your insides. They make it hard to think or breathe. I’m 33; I can’t begin to imagine what kind of fear they would instill in a child.
We knew that the M23 rebels had been inching closer, but we thought they would circumvent both the airport and Goma. They had stopped five kilometres short of the city the night before. Now they were here.
What’s happening to the children?
Children always suffer most in these crises. We’ve seen so many of them without any adults around to care for them. Some are looking after little brothers and sisters and have to scrape by on what they can beg.
World Vision’s first goal is to feed children and families, many of whom haven’t eaten in several days. We partnered with the United Nations World Food Program to distribute food to people who had to leave everything behind as they retreated from the rebel advance.
We’ve been working in the inner suburbs of Goma, bringing assistance to the impromptu camps set up in churches and schools, as well as the pre-existing camps just northwest of the city where the fighting sent thousands fleeing from the front lines. While anyone who could make it to Goma did so (it’s considered safer to retreat to urban centres at such times), many families from the more remote villages could only get as far as these established camps.
Dark, dirty and depressing
The Mugunga camp already played host to 45,000 Congolese people displaced by the seemingly unending violence in this country. The children arriving in recent days have witnessed unimaginable violence. Others have lived in this camp all their lives. They have never benefited from “normal.” Not ever.
Mugunga is built on lava rock, which is dark and dirty. In such places, World Vision works to provide child-friendly spaces, safe places where children can play. Trained caregivers will guide the children through counselling that’s appropriate for their ages and what they’ve endured. We hope these programs can bring a little joy to what is otherwise a very depressing place for children. It’s also important to help children who have been separated from their parents, in particular to try to help them re-establish family links.
Of course, we look forward to giving children that comfort. And we’re glad to put maize, beans, salt and oil in the hands of people who haven’t eaten in days. It provides a small measure of comfort to imagine a family that’s been on the run sitting around a fire and sharing a meal – however basic.
But what we can’t provide is answers. The people we meet in the camps, strong, resilient people, look us in the face and cry: “Please, what are you doing to help us? We want to return to our homes, we want to live in peace! Can you help this to happen?”