So we’ve survived 3 weeks in the DRC and one week here in Beni. The flight from Goma was a brilliant, bumpy journey over jungle and little villages without a road in sight. Goma is a grey town. The roads are rocks and volcanic ash. The UN, NGOs and the profiteers of Congo’s mineral wealth live behind huge walls in big compounds guarded by full security teams. The place is awash with military carrying AK-47s, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades etc. I asked Barady if I could take a picture of these guys. He said ‘Yes, but they will shoot you’. So sorry for lack of interesting pictures. You’ll have to take my word for it! Overall the scene is of massive contradictions between the haves and have-nots.
From the beginning Beni seemed more like Africa. The surroundings are green, the pot-holed roads are a dusty red colour and the women are colourfully dressed. It could be a small town anywhere in Africa. Reminds me of Jandira! Unfortunately some people have experienced suffering more intense than you could imagine.
Beni is a UN ‘red zone’. Western nationals aren’t supposed to be here.. However, for us it feels completely safe, not like a war zone at all. We walk around feely during the day to the great entertainment of the locals who stare, laugh and shout ‘Mzungu’ often accompanied by ‘give me money’ (the only English they know). I haven’t seen any other white people walking around which is a shame. The people we have got to know are incredibly welcoming, friendly and helpful. The fact that Paul speaks Swahili as well as the locals impresses them greatly and always attracts a crowd. I just stand there like his mute friend.
There are some funny encounters. The other morning a little boy was jabbering away in Swahili about me having a big nose. He was pretty well endowed in that department himself and I was about to ask him if he’d ever looked in a mirror…then realised that he probably hadn’t. When I went for a run the locals were in complete stiches laughing at this white man running. At one point I had 15 kids running after me shouting and laughing.
There is no running water here but I’m becoming an expert at washing from a bucket. Electricity comes on at 6pm and ends at 11pm so no late night partying. Daily schedule is work, dinner, work, beer, bed. Our accommodation is basic but safe and comfortable. This is in stark contrast to the living conditions of the young people we are helping.
We are working with a local organisation called CERAO who are partners of World Vision. We are completing two group interventions, one with around 50 former boy soldiers and the other with around 50 girls who have been working as prostitutes in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels). With each we will complete 15+ sessions of group-based trauma-focused Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The CBT has been ‘africanised’ and so includes lots of culturally relevant activities.
We have developed this intervention over the past year and will be evaluating it in a Randomised Controlled Trial. This is too boring to explain but basically we measure levels of PTSD, depression, anxiety, conduct etc before and after the intervention, compare with a control group who don’t get intervention, determine if there is a significant change, then give to control group. Most of the time in Goma was spent translating measures into Swahili and French and validating to make them as culturally relevant as possible.
Everything is completed through local people so children will be more open. We employed 5 locals for a week to do post-intervention individual interviews. We then started our groups yesterday with a local counsellor, social worker and interpreter who we hope will continue on the intervention after we leave. They have been amazing and worked so hard. There is no way the project would be happening without them.
We are working with the girls on Mon, Wed and Fri mornings and the boys on Tues, Thurs and Sat mornings. In the afternoons we will work with the local partner to try and encourage them to get the girls out of the brothels and the boys off the street. This may involve providing incentives (mattresses, food, hygiene kits etc) to host families to encourage them to take these children in. We are also hoping to start an income-generating project to encourage girls to leave brothels. Many of the girls have their own babies as a result of their work. They have no-where else to go. If they left the brothels they would be on the street and could not feed their child. Would love it if Joy and Laura could come out and teach bead making!!
The past events and current situations of the young people are more desperate than I had ever imagined. The descriptions below are disturbing but this is the reality and hopefully will help people to pray specifically. I’d love to show you pictures of the young people so you have a face for the stories but obviously I can’t post online for security and confidentiality reasons.
All of the girls have worked in the ‘Quartier Generales’ (brothels), some from the age of 10. Many of them are still working in the brothels. Most of them have lost or been rejected by their parents or caregivers and have no-where else to go. They rely on brothel owners to feed them and their child. The girls may be made to sleep with up to 20 men each night, often with more than one at a time. Sometimes a group of men will just turn up and take turns.
Some of the girls are paid a small amount while others only receive a little food. They are traumatised by their war experiences, parent’s deaths, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions and many other events
The boys are the roughest, toughest bunch of lads you could ever imagine. If the wee lads in East Belfast think they’re hard they should meet this crew! Due to their experiences they’re more men than boys really, mostly aged around 16-17.
The majority are former child soldiers who have only recently been released or escaped from the rebels. Some of them are living in a CTO while the UN tries to locate their parents. The CTO basically consists of 3 dirty mud huts where boys from different armed groups and of different ranks are left. Most of the other boys are living on the street.
They have spent anywhere from 6 months to 7 years with the armed groups. In the rebel armies the rule was kill or be killed. The same boys that I kicked a football around with today have have witnessed and carried out many rapes, murders, beatings and mutilations. Some have been involved in grotesque ceremonies such as cutting up and cooking bodies and drinking the blood of the person they killed. They are tormented by nightmares and haunted by guilt for the innocent lives they have taken.
A significant number of both boys and girls have expressed suicidal intent. Many have lost hope and say it would be better that they were dead. I’m not sure there is anything more sad in life than the loss of hope.
I pray that we can help to provide some hope through the intervention and through bringing a spiritual dimension to the psychology work that is much more accepted in Africa than in the UK. Thankfully this project is bigger than just our psychosocial work. It is a privilege and a pressure to be here at the very start. We also hope to assist in finding host families, setting up vocational training, providing incentives and, as mentioned, starting some kind of micro-finance co-operative.
Some nights I look up at the unreal African stars and wonder how the Creator of the universe could allow the pinnacle of his creation to suffer in the this way. At the same time I cry out to the same Creator to rescue them. If you are the praying kind please pray for the young people that we are working with- that they can find physical, emotional and spiritual freedom. That in the situations that appear so hopeless, they will find hope.
We met the president of CERAO today who is also pastor of the local church. The ‘Big Man’ culture pervades every aspect of society here so this man is revered by folks in the area. He arrived with his following to meet the two Mzungus. The conversation went something like this:
Assistant: John, c’est la president!
Me: Ah..bonjour monsieur, je m’appelle John, comment ca va?
Pastor: Ca va bien, enchante. Mon nom est Pinis
Me and Paul together: PENIS!??
Pastor: Oui, Pastor Pinis
Me: Nice to meet you Pastor Penis….
Then descended into uncontrollable laughter that reminded me of being back in school with Gav and Procs. One of those where you’re crying and can’t string enough words together to make a respectful sentence. Thankfully no-one speaks English but don’t think Pastor Pinis and his entourage were too impressed with their first experience of these white men!