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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Media Sales Professional - Work From Home

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Enjoying rapid growth we contin...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy