We must wake up to compassion fatigue for the children in Congo
Monday 02 February 2009
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
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