Focus: So where does your aid money go?

You give your money to a charity like Comic Relief and then what? The Radio 1 DJ Edith Bowman travelled to Africa with Save the Children to find out. Her travels took her to Congo, where she met some of the estimated 30,000 children who were forced to fight in a conflict that left more than three million people dead, most of them civilians. This is her diary...
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The Independent Online

Day 1 - Kigali

Day 1 - Kigali

It's funny how when you have no first-hand experience of something you create all these images and expectations in your head. That's exactly what I do as our flight touches down in Nairobi. I have images of a dusty land-strip surrounded by every animal that wandered on to Noah's Ark. What I am not expecting is a sprawling metropolis in vast jungle with the horizon lit up as if the sky is on fire. As we wait for our connecting flight to Rwanda we receive a safety briefing. One of our destinations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been cancelled as in the past 24 hours it has become a high-security risk. The realisation of where I am begins to hit me.

I am in Rwanda, the site of one of the worst attempted genocides the world has ever seen, and there's still an air of shock and recovery around the capital. We drive to the Kigali Memorial Centre just outside the main part of town. It's a place where families and friends can come and pay respects around the eternal flame, and where visitors come face to face with the atrocities of 1994. Outside, in the colourful and nurtured gardens, children play and women sit in silence.

We are taken to the site of 11 mass graves, where the remains of 256,000 victims have been buried so far. More are still arriving. With the recent changes to the judicial system, those involved in the genocide are being tried and are informing officials of the sites of mass murders where remains are being discovered and brought to the centre to be laid to rest by family and friends. Inside the centre, various rooms take you through the events of something that is just so hard and baffling to understand. Pictures, raw footage and stories are played out as you walk through the dark rooms. At times, I find it hard to watch.

The main focus of our trip is to see how money from Save the Children and Comic Relief is being spent to help the former child soldiers and others affected by the DRC's civil war. The drive from Kigali to Goma takes about three hours and I am overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape: lush green valleys, mountain tops and wide plains. After parting with $30 each, we have our passports stamped and set off to our dwellings on the edge of Lake Kivu. Goma was hit by a volcanic eruption two years ago and half the town was wiped out. Small sheds now house everything from park benches to the local barbers. We find our hotel and base for the next four days, and it's lights out.

Day 2 - Goma

It's an early start as we head to Save the Children's HQ in Goma. Child transit centres are scattered around the DRC, where the children are brought for rehabilitation once they have been demobilised. It's basically a place where they learn to be children again. Driving to the transit centre, I watch one little boy break his flip-flop as he crosses the road running after his friends. He stops and bursts into floods of tears: one requirement for access to school here is footwear.

As we arrive, about 40 happy-looking boys in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops are playing football. The youngest is nine, the oldest 18 - and they have confidence by the bucket load. Jean De Deu, a child protection officer for Save the Children, takes me on a tour around the centre. Extravagant it is not, but the boys are learning how to survive away from the violence of the army. The kitchen is in an open-sided barn where rice and beans are cooked on wood fires. The eating area doubles as a classroom. A truck arrives with basic kit for the boys. There's much excitement about having new possessions, but this is all they have: a pair of trousers, shorts, trainers, T-shirt, jumper, a towel, soap, a toothbrush, notebook and pen.

These children have been through so much in their short lives, but are so positive. One wants to study literature and couldn't wait to get out of the army. He'd held quite a high rank and he's still treated with a great deal of respect. He's 17.

The saddest story is from little Serge. He was nine when he was taken from his school and made to carry and fire a gun. "We were told to walk and shoot and you never knew what you were shooting at," he says, "but when you walked past bodies you knew you'd killed someone." At the centre, many children are reunited with their families. But in some cases, like Serge's, the family doesn't want the child back. Serge doesn't yet know he is here because his father doesn't want him. Save the Children is trying to persuade his father to give Serge a chance. When we leave, the boys send us off in style, singing and dancing. It apparently translates into: "Just because you are leaving doesn't mean we're going to go back to the army."

Day 3 - Mushaki

I am still trying to get my head around the procedure of how the boys get out of the army and into the centres. Mushaki plays a huge part in this. Known as the "brassage", it's where all the army groups are encouraged to go so that the many armed groups around the country can become one government army. The groups are demobilised, and those who want to can leave the army. Any children who arrive with rebel groups are taken to the various transit centres. So far around 500 children have gone through Mushaki.

It has been arranged for us to visit the brassage and meet the general, to ask questions and see how the process is working. As we get closer, the number of men with guns increases. Then we turn a corner to find an enormous army base draped across an entire valley. Colonel Katansa shows us around barracks that house up to 7,000 troops. The atmosphere is almost tranquil - strange when you think that among those 7,000 troops are people who were fighting each other until just days ago.

The next project, in Matanda, teaches the children agriculture and farming, giving them goats and pieces of land. One girl was 13 when she was raped by three soldiers; she now has a little girl of one and a half. Not accepted back into her community, she says the project has taught her to be independent and raise her daughter properly. She wants to go back to school and may sell one of her goats to pay for her schooling or for medical treatment, should she need it.

We head further into the mountains towards Masisi. The journey is breathtaking: banana plants as far as the eye can see and every shade of green imaginable. I still find it scary and baffling when we drive past children in army clothes with guns, and then two minutes up the road boys are kicking a home-made football about in a field.

In Masisi, we head to a Save the Children nutrition centre. In the DRC, everyone has to pay for medical care, but Save the Children and Unicef fund free medical and nutrition centres around the country. There are 29 children here. As we walk in, there is a constant hum of children in pain. I find it so hard to hear these whimpers of distress and see the signs of illness in babies a few days old. This shows how vital the support and funds are to centres like this. It's the only hope the children have of surviving.

Day 4 - Masisi and Kababi

Masisi is on the boundary of an area inhabited by rebel army groups, so the UN is heavily present. We arrange to meet the head of the UN Organisation Mission (Monuc) at his headquarters in Masisi. The camp overlooks the town and is manned by Indian UN workers. General PN Singh explains that the UN's only concern is security in the area, and it seems his troops are gaining the trust of locals. He has noticed a big drop in the number of child soldiers. Before we leave, we're treated to a lovely breakfast of fried eggs and fresh pineapple - unexpected but very welcome.

On the road there are a lot more soldiers wandering around - I suppose because we are getting deeper into the jungle. The kids are amazing, smiling and stretching their arms out for hugs.

In the nutrition centre in Kababi, there are more than 50 children. In terms of the number of sick babies, this centre is even more shocking than the last. One woman I speak to walked four days with her four children to get here. She couldn't afford to pay for medical help and this was the closest place for her to get medicine. Her youngest was born the day her husband left to fight in the army. She hasn't seen him since and doesn't know if he's still alive. She has nowhere to go once she leaves here. As I'm talking to one of the doctors, another woman arrives with her six-week-old little boy. She's walked three days to get here. And back in the UK we complain when we have to wait a few days for a doctor's appointment.

Names of all former child soldiers have been changed to protect identities. For more information on Save the Children, go to www.savethechildren.org.uk or call 0800 814 8148

So how do the children in Africa's poverty trap feel about their plight?

Cesar, a nine-year-old Mozambican, has put his finger on the problem with the Millennium Development Goals. "Most of the women here die on the way to hospital," he says. "This happens because there are no vehicles and it is not easy to take a pregnant woman on a bicycle."

This may sound like a statement of the obvious. But until the Grow Up Free from Poverty report was commissioned last January, nobody knew how people like Cesar were falling through the gaps in international aid. The report will be launched on Thursday to a cross-party group of MPs that includes Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for International Development. It will say that children are being failed by a "sector-by-sector" approach to aid, and by policies that do not take into account the social, cultural and economic contribution they make. The report is the result of months of research by 21 major charities and other NGOs. They wanted to know how children, often the worst casualties of poverty, saw their own situations. So they took a radical step - and asked them.

The 4,000 children who were questioned in 18 developing countries surprised the researchers. Mostly they worried about the same things as any modern child: they do not see enough of their parents (who often have to travel many miles to find work); they are bullied at school (stigmatised by Aids or disability); and girls suffer from the gender imbalance (many know their best hope of a living will be in the sex trade).

But children in the world's poorest countries do not want the help we think they want. Before the report, for example, nobody knew that the biggest problem in many children's lives is their parents' alcoholism. They did not know because the parents did not tell researchers. But according to Angela Penrose, who co-ordinated the research, "it came through, from almost all of them, right at the top of their agenda". The people who control aid to these developing nations also didn't realise that the millions they spend building schools often goes to waste. In many cases children simply cannot go to school because a bridge is broken, the roads are unusable or the school has no toilets or drinking water.

"If the G8 takes on board what we are saying, a lot of policies will have to change," says Penrose. "There is a lack of joined-up government. Focusing on the targets that are already there is potentially dangerous: children are falling between the cracks."

As a result of the report, the Grow Up Free from Poverty Coalition is now urging G8 leaders to consult children about whether they are receiving the help the West sends, and whether it is what they need. The coalition is part of the wider Make Poverty History movement, which plans to lobby G8 leaders at their summit next month. Make Poverty History is encouraging the public to check its internet website www.makepovertyhistory.org for details of how to travel to Edinburgh for the rally on 2 July and ask the G8 to promote fair trade, double aid and cancel the debt owed by poor countries.

But it is more complicated than that, Penrose says. "We've spent 10 to 15 years concentrating on health and education, but the transport and infrastructure that would enable a family physically to get to these facilities aren't there." To put it another way, "It is not easy to take a pregnant woman on a bicycle."

Katy Guest

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