With few toys, children make their own out of old jerry cans. More than a thousand families now live in small thatch and tarp huts outside the United Nations peacekeeping base in Kiwanja. Without peace, the Congolese people are among the poorest on the planet. The scale of violence has grown so critical that Human Rights Watch recently estimated 90,000 people who live in the Kivus have in the last few months been displaced by the fighting and the marauding militias.
A young girl wanders the dirt roads of Bukavu in Eastern Congo. Few children go to school in the worst war-torn areas. Schools close due to the ongoing violence, insecurity and abject poverty of the local population.
Nyongera village children and adults attend Good Friday church services. The minister of their church, Pastor Ntibishoboka was killed in a massacre at the village. On Feb. 5, in this small village just a mile from a main U.N. peacekeeping base, scores of civilians were massacred by a militia bearing machetes, spears, guns and grenades. In a matter of hours, women and children were raped, homes were burned, and crops were picked over. But the 120 Indian peacekeepers say they did not hear the explosions and screams, nor were they alerted by villagers who have the commander's cell phone numbers. Officially, 100 or so people were killed in the overnight raid by CNDP, a militia that had been backed by Rwanda. Unofficially, survivors say, a true number would be several hundred lives higher.
In Congo, 74% of girls marry when they are teenagers or even younger. A child bride sits in the obstetric/traumatic fistula recovery ward at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, in Eastern Congo. She said she is 20 years old but looks no more than 12 or 13. Even her husband admits he took her too young when she was far from ready to become a mother and wife. Worldwide, pregnancy is the leading case of death for girls aged 15-18.
Eighty percent of the children who come to the Heal Africa Kiwanja transit house in North Kivu have been raped, the other twenty percent are traumatized by witnessing violent attacks on their loved ones. Doctors say girls and boys as young as three have survived horrific violence, attacks that will affect them physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives. Some rebel groups seek out children, raping them when they are alone in the fields or even wrapped in the arms of screaming parents, who are helpless to defend them.
A U. N. peacekeeper's jeep passes a child as they drive through Nyabanira, North Kivu in Eastern Congo. The UN used to stop and hand out sweets to the children. North Kivu and South Kivu are lushedly jungled and choked with banana and avocado trees, corn and potato plants, peanut vines, sugarcane and tomatoes. The villagers and farmers have also been the hardest hit by militias or the FARDC, who steal, torch, torture and burn their way though isolated villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A soldier from the Congo National Army walks through a village outside Bukavu in Eastern Congo. Children live in fear of being recruited as soldiers on both sides of the conflict. "Save the Children" states that well over 1000 children were recruited last year and the numbers continue to rise.
Joshua, 10, holds a toy gun he bought in the market outside the barbed wire fence of the United Nations mobile operating base near the village of Nyabanira. The UN has 34 mobile operating bases in North Kivu, small military encampments planted in or near villages to provide security and communications in Congo. Living within this downward spiral of violence has severe consequences, not least the effects of living traumatized by war and in a culture that seems to have forgotten its children.