She looks at us with her big eyes, the expression on her face a mixture of resignation and frustration. But at the same time, her eyes reveal that somewhere inside there is a ray of hope: “Children in Congo can’t dream the same way children in Sweden can. Here, dreams are in danger of being lost,” says the President of Goma’s Children’s Parliament.
A few minutes before, she used a clear voice to put critical questions to both the Swedish delegation and the provincial social minister. But all talk of dreams for the future has to wait until peace and stability have returned to her province of North Kivu.
During the visit by Ambassador for Children and Armed Conflict Gufran Al-Nadaf in DR Congo on 21–25 May 2018, we met children who had left violent gangs in Kinshasa, children who in various ways had been associated with armed groups in North Kivu province, and children who in general live their lives in a society marked by armed conflict in Kinshasa and Goma city, in eastern Congo.
While many children feel pessimistic about the future, they sometimes express desires about their lives as adults, providing peace comes. When they are asked “What are your dreams for the future?” their spontaneous answer is almost always about peace, security, going to school and being able to grow up with food on the table. Having a family of one’s own, in which children can grow up in a safe environment, feels a long way off, but it is still what most of them hope for. Not allowing yourself to have dreams about the future is typical of a society in which children have grown up in conflict settings and possibly seen their family killed or needing to flee from fighting, or struggled every day to put food on the table. Where once people spoke of ‘one in two’, a large share of the Congolese rural population is now down to ‘one in three’ – meaning days when they can eat. Almost 80 per cent of the country’s population live below the monetary poverty line, and 400 000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition in the Kasai area, according to UNICEF. This is in a country that is among the world’s richest in terms of access to precious minerals, and fertile land that used to be cultivated, but which now lies barren in large parts of the country.
The twelve-year-old boy who was recruited and used by one of North Kivu’s armed groups talks about how he was out looking for food when he was kidnapped by armed men. He looks downwards, he is probably a little bit shy in front of the three white women listening to his story, but also clearly traumatised by what he has been through. Just over a month ago he managed to flee from the armed group during an attack and reach the base of the UN force MONUSCO, before being handed over to UNICEF and its local partner that works to reintegrate former child soldiers. Together with a number of other boys, he is now receiving support for a few months at one of UNICEF’s transit centres. With the help of a drawing of a boy, they talk about how their hearts feel pain and fear, and how they have seen and heard things no child should ever have to see or hear. But at the same time, they see a light, where the other part of their hearts feels hope and joy, where they have seen there are people who have their best interests at heart and who listen to them. This gave them the courage to leave their armed groups and find another solution.
Children affected by armed conflict show great resilience and are important agents of change. They have lost a large part of their childhood but agree that their future should not be lost as well.
Text: Susanne Alldén, First Secretary at Sweden’s Embassy in Kinshasa, DRC
Photo: Susanne Alldén