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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Graduate Print Producer / Account Executive

£18 - 25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Graduate Print Producer / Account Execut...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Digital Marketing Assistant - Wimbledon

£18000 - £19000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate Digital Marketin...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

Day In a Page

A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade