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Following Miles' trip with Warchild

Masisi

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Before I talk about todays trip to Masisi, 2 more things not to do when on a trip. Or at any time, really.

1) If you’re told that the stairs are uneven, Tom (War Child trustee), and told to be careful when walking up them, falling up them twice is not a good look.

2) When talking to a guy who runs a very important UN project in DRC and meaning to say “a little bit” in French, saying “petis pois” instead, Mark (War Child CEO) is going to ensure that you have the mickey taken out of you for, well, ever more.

Jas (from o2) hasn’t actually done anything yet to allow us to take the piss out of yet. Hopefully soon. Because, to be frank, after what we saw today, laughter is definitely needed and there wasn’t a lot of it tonight from any of us. The day has been somewhat harrowing, particularly for those of us who haven’t seen poverty like this first hand before.

When I’m writing these blogs, it’s essentially me typing up notes I’ve made through the day. So even though I’m not feeling it in the slightest, there will probably still be some irreverent comments in there which were written earlier. I would also apologise for the length, but I won’t. We saw a lot today, and it would be wrong of me to not talk about it.

We start our journey at 8am, which is a time alien to me at any time, let alone a Sunday, but we’ve got a long drive ahead of us on the java road to Masisi. DRC seems to be quite a religious country, and there are a lot of people dressed up to go to church, mainly walking, but also vans full of people with “God is Good” on the visor in the front of the van. Apart from one, which has Liverpool Football Club on it, yet the people inside were neither scouse, nor Norweigan.

Last night there was a huge thunderstorm for a couple of hours which, whilst interrupting some of our sleep (mine included) made things less dusty. The humidity is still pretty stifling though.

Also last night we were told of 3 car jackings of NGO/charity vehicles in the last month in the area we’re staying in, so are travelling in 2 vehicles today as it’s safer, as well as a few rules such as ensuring that our phones aren’t on show at any time (so the o2 users have to suffer as much as the Orange users today, as there isn’t much point in having reception if you can’t use your phone) and all other valuables hidden too. Photo’s are to be taken only when permission is granted, but we knew that anyway, but a picture from here really can tell a thousand words, and there were sights that would have shown a lot, such as people hanging onto the back of trucks, or more than 30 people sitting in the back of a truck just to get from A to B. But most people walk. And the distances they walk, and the conditions they put up with to do so, such as mountainous hills, having to dodge the vehicles that go past, whilst carrying huge loads of their heads, make the people of DRC very special indeed.

8.20 – ignore what I said about the rain meaning no dusty roads. The java road is now over, and we’re on a proper dirt track, with dust everywhere. And people walking through it. Every time a car goes past them, a huge cloud is produced, as you can hopefully see on one of the photo’s below.

They really are one giant dust ball, which ruin the beautiful views. There are some amazing trees here in strange places, and, well, the cows in the UK don’t realise how lucky they are in their flat fields grazing with only the risk of a drunk person pushing them over at night. Here they live in the mountainous fields. One false step, and they’ll tumble down a few hundred meters. The more daring ones probably try it, just for a laugh.

We’re only able to drive very slowly on these roads, normally around 15kmh, unless in a dangerous area, at which point you speed up. Every half a mile of so you see people collecting firewood, mainly children and women. And just wonder exactly how far they’re going to have to carry it back to their home or camp.

9.30 – Had a quick stop at were allowed to take some photo’s. It’s difficult to believe that people actually live up here. Met a couple of guys riding their bicycles stacked up with huge containers carrying milk down to town where it’s going to be turned into yoghurt (photo below). They’re still got 10km to go having set off many kilometres further back. It’s downhill, so not as bad as it could be, but I wouldn’t fancy the journey back. But it’s better than walking, I guess, which is what so many others do regularly.

10.00 – We’re getting a pretty good work out in the jeep. It’s pretty bumpy. No speed bumps, just massive holes in the “road” (and when I say holes, I mean ditches). Tresor, our driver for the day, does an amazing job negotiating them.

10.20 – Have just been told over the walkie talkie from the leading jeep that we’re in an area described as “dangerous” now. There are no buildings around at all, which makes it the perfect place for rebel militia’s to be hiding (although, of course, we don’t know whether they are there or not). To re-assure everyone else in the jeep, it’s all OK, because I’m the one in the firing line. Normally when people call “shotgun” it’s to try and get the seat in the front, but here shotgun means the person in the front gets shot. Maybe that’s how it started?

It’s OK though because Jas has offered to eat my Twix’s for me should I get shot, and Wendy is quite happy taking my head torch (a torch that, err, you wear on your head) out of my cold, dead, hands (I’m not actually wearing it at the moment) should the worst happen.

10.35 – We’re now out of the danger zone, and I’m still alive. Which means the Twix’s are all mine. Muhahahahaha.

11.00 – We arrive at one of 3 camps in Masisi and are shown into Camp De Bihito. There are various NGO’s involved with the running of the camp, with help from the Norweigan Refugee Council, the UN, and aid from the Church too.

We are invited into a meeting with the camp council, made up of elders of the camp, both men and women, including qualified teachers, a pastor, and some farmers. All of the people in the camp have been displaced by the various conflicts in the region.

The camp has been there since 2007, and the people there tend to have been displaced from up to 30km away. There are still families arriving, with 20 arriving recently due to the increase of armed incidents at night. The people in the meeting would love to go back to their homes, but the continuing conflicts and other people moving onto their land means they’d be going back to nothing but the chance of more violence towards them.

The camp that we are in houses 937 families, 4,278 people, of which 2,834 are children. There is no access to schools, and even if they had the money to build a school, which they don’t, there is no space, especially as they’d need 40 classrooms. Teachers wouldn’t be a problem, as they have enough qualified people in the camp, but those same people also need to feed their families, and there would be no money to pay them. The local schools also don’t have space, so only a hundred or so of the children are currently in education. The rest have absolutely nothing to do, apart from collect firewood.

This leads to an issue of the children leaving the camp and becoming street children, or becoming child soldiers. They can’t keep track of the children when they leave, so the families are being split up – they either need to live in the camp, 8 to a small hut (see the picture below), or risk life in the dangerous area of Masisi.

There are more dangers for girls than boys there. In fact, DRC has just been declared the second most dangerous place on the planet for females, behind only Afghanistan. The main danger is rape by armed men when out collecting wood. This is said in a very matter of fact way – it’s a fact of life for girls and women in the country.

The lack of food and clothes often makes the children lose respect for their parents, which also increases the risk of the kids becoming child soldiers and also teenage pregnancy. The latter causes more issues due to the society in DRC, as it’s not as if they’re able to get a council house when it happens, and can lead to fights inside the hut about who runs the home. Sometimes the young girls are asked to leave, yet there’s nowhere for them to go.

The best thing that could happen for the security of the children would be schools. Schools keep the kids out of trouble, and give them something to do and the chance of a better life. Yet, as you can see above, it’s a never ending cycle, with the lack of land available, and funds. When asked whether their old land could be used to build a school, we were reminded that other displaced people had moved onto their old land, and the lack of documentation in the country makes it impossible for them to prove that it is their land. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken, but it’s difficult to see how without huge investment and more interest from the powers both in the country, and abroad.

The woods, where the children go to get firewood, is 7km away, which increases the chances of rape and abduction.

Thankfully the water supply is getting better (the nearest supply away from the camp is also 7km) thanks to the support of NGO’s, but with the global credit crunch comes less investment in charities, and the Norweigan refugee council money is running out and they may need to pull out in the coming months. This will mean needing to pay for water. There’s lots of effort into tapping water from local streams which might give enough to wash, but sanitation is a massive problem.

There is some sanitation though, but it’s limited – think music festival toilets without the chemicals, and a music festival that lasts for years. The stench was horrific, and there’s no way to seal the latrines as there’s no land to put in new ones. It’s a never ending cycle.

The World Food programme have cut food supplies to the camp by 50% also due to lack of funds. This leads to groups of kids begging at the side of the dust roads, shouting out for food, especially biscuits, as the UN vehicles often have supplies of glucose biscuits. These are not beggars in the same way that beggars in London sit outside cash points. These kids just want something to eat.

We go for a walk around the camp and the conditions really are shocking. The huts themselves are the size of a garden shed. Because it’s been raining, the stoves are inside, so there are toxic fumes inside the huts. Quite how 8 people fit into one to sleep is beyond me. The camps are build on hills, and walking around is difficult even in walking boots, yet here are people walking around barefoot merrily skipping around. One false move, and you’re going to fall a long way.

The main focal point of the camp is the local church which also acts as the community centre, although it is an empty building. Or was, until a couple more displaced families turned up, who are staying there until some space is found, somewhere, for a hut for them. The kids are dirty, not because they don’t wash, but just because the camp is so dusty and muddy. It’s difficult to put into words how horrific the conditions are. And this is how so many people in DRC have to live, as they have no other way. This is what war does. This is what conflict does. Without NGO’s to help, these people would not be alive – we must make sure the funding doesn’t run out.

We then leave the camp, surrounded by children, to go off to the CADERCO partners office to discuss the work that War Child will be doing in many of the camps.

At the moment, there is a lack of co-ordination amongst aid agencies in the country, so one of the things War Child will be doing is to make the network work better. The starting point for this will be  mapping of all of the different services which can then be shared amongst the other NGO’s.

They are in the process of setting up a free support line, so if anything should happen to one of the children, such as rape, it can be reported to War Child, who will then have 3 response teams that they can send out to take the child to the provider of the necessary service.

This may well be to themselves, as they do have a centre for young women who have been raped which we’re visiting in the coming days. It could be CADERCO, who this year will rehabilitate around 300 child soldiers and street children and get them back into their communities, including around 50 girls (they have a 75% success rate with this integration). It could be UNICEF, who also have projects in the region. At the moment, without this service, you have to be lucky (which sounds ridiculous when you’re talking about children who have been raped, or abducted and forced to fight) to get these services due to the lack of co-ordination.

It certainly won’t sort out all of the problems, but will help create more efficiencies which, in itself, can lead to better spending of the funding that is there for food, water and, hopefully, the finding of, and purchase of, land for 40 classrooms for each of the displacement camps, of which there are many. It really is a huge task.

One thing that is very noticeable is how much we stick out. We are regularly called a less complimentary version of “white person” not in a malicious way, but because that’s the word they use and us whitey’s are a rare sight for them. A lot of the youngest children run away, but we find out later that’s because the children are told at an early age to behave “or the white man will get you”.

We’re then back on the road at 1.45 after what can only be described as the most heart wrenching and harrowing few hours of my life. It really does beggar belief that in the year 2011 there are people in the world who are forced to live like that whilst people “back home” are complaining about the smallest things, something I’m certainly guilt of myself.

The next stop is half an hour away at Bukombo, where we were being shown a falling apart building which, once rebuilt for $15,000 will become a new War Child centre for children in that camp. This is being built as a “safe space for children”. A place where they can go to report issues, such as rape or abuse, where War Child will be able to help them. It’s around 70km from the nearest main “town” Goma, which is where they would need to go at the moment. A photo of the building is in the photo’s attached to the blog.

Whilst we’re discussing the project, I’m standing writing notes, as I’ve been doing all the way to make the blog possible. Everywhere we go, we’re surrounded by people, fascinated by the white people (and likely also hoping we have some food to give them). One of the children is staring at me whilst I’m writing, then turns to his friend and mimics what I’m doing with the pen. It’s as though he’s never seen anyone write before. I’m later told that it’s more likely he was aspiring to be able to write, so was watching to see how I did it so it could help him. With my handwriting, I doubt it would.

We then set off to try and get back to our base before dark (with the recent car jackings, this is essential) and are hoping to be able to stop off to get some cheese as a gift for our project visit tomorrow – unfortunately the dairy was closed, but there were some kids there whose photo was taken by Wendy, and they’d never seen themselves in a photo before, so Wendy showed them what they looked like in the screen on her digital camera. Their faces really were a sight to see, hence the photo of that below…

On the way back, I discovered that Sunday afternoon was the time all the local camps and villages played football against each other. No proper pitches, just goals in a field, but huge crowds of people gathered to watch, all of whom had walked the huge distances to be able to see the game, but they did have a proper football for each game, even though they looked a bit flat. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stop and see the game, due to us having to be back before nightfall but, once again, football really is a universal language.

The journey back was ridiculously dusty, but it’s also really hot so the windows were open for part of the journey, which lead to us all being covered with dust by the time we got back. Such a small problem what with the ridiculous poverty and suffering we’d seen today (to be frank, I’ve held back quite a bit here because the words were too hard to type), but I never thought I’d be so glad to see the java roads with massive potholes in, and people jumping out of the way of the jeeps as they drove through.

When we got back to where we are staying, I went to my room, and just sat there for a few hours. It’s taken me some time to get composed to be able to write up this blog, for which I apologise, but I defy anyone to see what I did today and for it not to affect them. It’s heartbreaking.

And now, I’m off to bed. Just massively grateful that I have a place to sleep. Then off to the War Child office tomorrow, and see another project.

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Written by milesjacobson

June 19, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Good work Miles. Plenty of detail and well expressed

    Andy

    June 19, 2011 at 10:08 pm


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