DINGILA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
This country has always conjured up images in my mind of rebels lurking in the jungle, burnt out villages, and young child soldiers with machine-guns.
The idea of children being forced to become soldiers has tormented me for a number of years and I have read every account I could find about the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), an infamously violent rebel army group, originally from Uganda and now based in Garamba National Park in the north eastern DRC.
The LRA is known for its tactic of pillaging and raiding small villages, and kidnapping children who are then forced to become either child soldiers or sex slaves.
And that’s where I was headed – a small remote village in north eastern DRC to work with the humanitarian aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres.
My preconceived images were quickly dispelled by lush jungle, welcoming people and no sign of machine-guns.
For the next six months I was to work in the local hospital and two village health posts, training the local health care providers. The village once had a population of 10,000 – but this year it experienced an influx of 8,000 people after some extremely violent rebel attacks by the Lord Resistance Army happened to the north of here.
In March 2009, the LRA attacked Banda, a remote village where MSF had a project. Chaos hit the village the moment the attack occurred. Hospital patients fled into the jungle, IV lines still attached to their arms. Women grabbed the nearest children around and fled. The entire MSF project fled. The majority of people fled 200 kilometres by foot, eventually arriving in Dingila, the village where I was based.
In December, more than eight months after the attack on Banda, the displaced people had made homes appear here in their new village and, at first appearance, it seemed as though they had settled in well without many additional needs.
But most of these people were small-scale subsistence farmers. They fled without their tools, and they have been displaced from their fields. There may be a roof over their heads, but they don’t have food, or a way to make money – and they are left with the psychological aftermath of having been displaced, having their families killed or having been kidnapped themselves.
The nurses I work with here had worked with MSF in Banda, and are now displaced themselves.
They are beautiful, intelligent people who were forced to leave behind their lives as they knew them when Banda was attacked by men wielding machetes.
They fled by walking for three days along the paths … the paths are narrow, and are surrounded by tall thick grass – inhibiting one from being able to see what lurks one metre off the path.
It is amazing that people don’t have heart attacks from pure stress when fleeing on these paths.
I asked one of the nurses where she slept along the way, as we are in the heart of Africa, with no shortage of large dangerous animals.
“We never slept,” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t sleep when you are escaping the LRA.”
For three days they marched on with no food, no rest, and only dirty water to drink along the way.
There is no sense of urgency here, the original crisis has subsided – Dingila is a calm beautiful little place with a lot of need which may never be met due to political turmoil.
While the LRA attacks villages, leaving people homeless, kidnapped, mutilated or dead, politicians from several countries play games, each with their own agendas.
The local people are the ones fleeing their villages and having their lives turned upside down – hoping it won’t be, but expecting it will be this way for a long time.
For next six months, I helped displaced people continue the rebuilding and healing process.
But six months is a long time in an area known for rebel attacks and civil unrest, and, like them I could only hope for the best.
Tricia Newport is a nurse who lives in Whitehorse.
This is the first in a series of dispatches from Congo.