We must wake up to compassion fatigue for the children in Congo

Any idea what's going on in Congo? Probably not. Why should you? When I last checked there were fewer than 150 references in the national press since Christmas to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of those were brief mentions in end-of-year reviews, stories about footballers, asylum-seekers and even one in a story about Jonathan Ross. In the same period there were almost 2,000 stories on Gaza.

Of course there was a flurry of Congo stories in November – it was quite exciting for a short period with a rebel warlord cranking up his campaign, driving back the Congolese army and threatening to take the major town of Goma. Then the coverage dribbled away and the story of eastern Congo became one of ongoing misery once more.

We've just spent a month filming there, making a Dispatches programme, investigating the impact of a dozen years of almost continuous conflict on the country's children. We decided to focus on children as a way of engaging interest in a country that – frankly – most people don't care about.

We came back with heartbreaking images. There's four-year-old Moise, with terrible wounds where a bullet gouged across his thighs, 12-year-old Gentille who hides behind her hands as she describes seeing a woman raped, slashed and murdered, and Davale, also 12, practising his sums with a stick in the dust because his house has been looted by soldiers and they've stolen everything, even his schoolbooks.

A group of lads, most of them orphans, working at a goldmine describe how they break rocks all morning, hoping to find tiny amounts of ore to pay for school in the afternoons. "My father used to buy me things when he was alive," says Samuel, 14, "but that doesn't happen any more." He trails off into silence.

A teenage girl at a centre for demobilised soldiers shrugs her shoulders when asked if she's ever killed people. She's been trained to use a machine gun. "A lot of people fell down," she says. "It's possible they died."

Then there's Esther – at least that's what staff at the orphanage call her. In November she was found by refugees fleeing the fighting by escaping into the thick forest. Esther is about three years old and was all alone, crying. She's totally unresponsive. I picked her up to cuddle her, sang songs to her and gently jigged her on my knee but she stayed a tiny, saggy bundle of sorrow.

This is a generation dazed and muted by horror, so used to suffering that they describe the most appalling things in an unnaturally calm, matter-of-fact way.

Every so often something gloriously childlike breaks through. Eve, 11, describes hiding for two weeks in the forest, freezing at night, with no clean water and almost no food. "People were farting with diarrhoea," she says, and all the other kids start giggling. Then she adds: "Some of them died."

Congo provokes a compassion coma. It's gone on for so long. Since the mid-Nineties the east has been ravaged by two full-scale civil wars and countless bouts of violence between an impossibly confusing set of armed groups who mix and match alliances.

Five million people have died in the past 12 years – as a direct result of the fighting and the indirect result of hunger, disease and poverty. Three million were children. Where else would three million dead kids go largely unnoticed?

The loudest noise we heard in the month came from a mob of about 300 who surrounded our car. "Sister, you're dead," they were screaming at me, making slit-throat signs. They hammered on the bonnet, reached in to grab us and yelled for petrol to burn us alive. Our mistake was to keep filming when a jeep full of soldiers drove past, horn honking. We were only saved when officials from the intelligence and immigration services turned up, commandeered our car at gunpoint and managed to drive us out of the mob. That's always the problem with Congo. When the silence is broken, the noise is deafening.



The author is a reporter on Congo's Forgotten Children, C4, 8pm, tonight

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm - London

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project