Hundreds Of Thousands Of Children Close To Dying Of Hunger In Congo

Hundreds of thousands of children in a province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo face imminent death from hunger, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, warned on Friday. Without urgent humanitarian assistance, said the agency, child fatalities in the Kasai region – which erupted in violence in August 2016, and has forced 1 million people from their homes – could “skyrocket.” According to UNICEF, 770,000 children are malnourished, with 400,000 at risk of death. The agency has appealed for $88m (£65m) to support children in Kasai, with half the funds to be spent on child nutrition. Including those forced to flee their homes in Kasai, an estimated 4.5 million Congolese people have been displaced. The figure is hotly disputed by the government, which last month boycotted a donor conference to raise money for the crisis. The event raised only $530m, a fraction of the $1.7bn requested by the UN.

A lull in hostilities has led some people to return to their communities, but Fatoumata Ndiaye, the deputy executive director of UNICEF, said: “Conflict and displacement continue to have devastating consequences for the children of Kasai. Thousands of displaced children have spent months without access to the services they need – like healthcare, safe drinking water and education – and their wellbeing has suffered tremendously. Now that access is improving, the government and humanitarian partners, with support from the international community, must ramp up life-saving interventions for children before it’s too late.” Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF’s representative in the DRC, said the agency was intensifying the distribution of therapeutic food to health centres and hospitals to treat malnourished children. “Now that people are returning to their communities, thousands of children can be newly reached with humanitarian assistance. Since early 2017, the agency and its partners have provided care for 71,500 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” he said.

In a report – Kasai: A Children’s Crisis – UNICEF said 3.8 million people, 2.3 of them children, need humanitarian assistance. Interviews with some of the children paint a grim picture of the ordeals they have faced, and their struggle for survival. Thousands of children have been recruited to the militia. They told the agency they were forced to endure “baptism rituals” involving alcoholic drinking potions containing ground human flesh or bones to “acquire supernatural powers” to protect them from combat. At least 60% of the country’s militias are children, according to the interagency Global Education Cluster and Global Protection Cluster.

UNICEF has provided support and trauma counselling for more than 1,700 children formerly associated with the groups. One boy, Joseph, now in a rehabilitation centre, told how he killed seven people – something he is slowly coming to terms with. “I didn’t feel guilty at the time, but now I feel terrible.” Tsheila, 10, recalls how her best friend, Kanku, was among those killed by militia at school. “The army locked us into our classrooms so we couldn’t get out. They accused us of being militia, but it wasn’t true because the militia came from somewhere else. Some of the children escaped, and the army started shooting them … There were five of my classmates that were killed.” She is now attending school in a temporary classroom. Sankisha, 17, whose father was killed by the militia and whose pregnant mother died during their escape, told the agency how she and her siblings were helped by a man who offered food, but only if she had sex with him. She is now pregnant and hopes the child will be a girl because she doesn’t like boys. “It’s their fault my life is not what it used to be,” she said.

Beyond the threat of malnutrition and militias, people in Kasai face a continuing health crisis. Since January 2017, a measles outbreak has led to 9,219 reported cases and 41 deaths. During the violence, 200 health centres were looted, burned or destroyed, along with 100 schools. A further 300 schools were used for military purposes. UNICEF estimated 440,000 children had not been able to complete the 2016-17 school year because of the violence. The agency has set up 314 classrooms and provided training for teachers. Conflict in the region broke out after a local leader, who opposed the government, was killed by police. Earlier this year, the UN refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said Congolese government forces had regained control of most of the Kasai area, but sporadic fighting continued. Last year, amid reports of killings and violence in Kasai, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, called the region a “landscape of horror.”

Credit: Karen McVeigh for The Guardian, 11 May 2018.