It has been more than 11 years since I started working for children’s right to education in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Even though the challenges in this part of the country are immense, nothing could disrupt my work. However, in December 2017, the Kasai region plunged into a terrible, deadly crisis of great magnitude and untold violence that forced tens of thousands of people, including children, to flee into neighbouring areas.
Starving, sick, out of school and without shelter, these children were in a situation of indescribable precariousness. When I met some of them, I realised my professional life was about to witness immense change. I admit that, previously, when I heard others speak of humanitarian emergencies, it always struck a chord, but I quickly moved on because it was not happening in my home. Most of the children I met were inconsolable and I felt powerless.
Justine, who is 15 years old, was separated from her family when she left her village to flee the violence. “I no longer have any news of my parents, my sister and my two younger brothers,” she confided in me. How did she manage to keep going?
Education is crucial because it allows children to look toward the future, especially in the context of crisis. Faced with the mass arrival of displaced children in the Kwilu province, we started establishing emergency programs. More than 10,000 displaced children found school benches again and more than half of them received psychosocial support.
At the end of 2018, the situation for children and women newly settled in the Kwilu province began to improve, but for those who found refuge in the Maï-Ndombe province, this was not the case … deadly clashes had transformed the city of Yumbi into a ghost town.
I was part of the first team deployed to the location to evaluate the humanitarian situation. When we arrived there, we were faced with a silence like that of a cemetery —not the slightest sign of life, not a single noise, not even the call of a bird. The desolation was absolute. Everything was destroyed and burned. It was like the sun had ceased to shed light on life at Yumbi.
Shame, hopelessness, desolation and dismay sprung to mind. The children had already lost their home, loved ones, friends, safety and all their daily habits, and now they risked losing their future.
With our partners, the UNICEF emergency team provided school kits to more than 6,000 students and provided tents and benches to 17 schools that were destroyed during the clashes so that they could function again. We further provided teacher-training, and psychosocial support to tens of thousands of children.
UNICEF supports safe spaces for learning and play for children affected by the crisis in Yumbi. More than 300 children on average participate in recreational activities every month in child-friendly spaces.
For children in emergency situations, education represents a real lifeline. Education cannot wait!
Jean Paul Nico Luketo is Education Specialist at UNICEF, Democratic Republic of the Congo.