Until a few years ago, no one had heard of the Kasai, then one of the most peaceful provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Since August 2016 however, this safe haven has become synonymous with atrocities and unspeakable violence. Hundreds of thousands of people had to flee to save their lives; their children were used to fight and kill; and schools and healthcare centres were destroyed, pillaged, or burned.
When calm progressively returned and people returned to the normal pace of life, Congolese refugees returned en masse from Angola, sparking a fire in this part of the DRC. In October 2018, the first wave of more than 300,000 citizens came back to the DRC, mainly to the Kasai, Central Kasai, and Kwango provinces. Since then, returns have continued and some days, up to 200 people cross the border.
In the Kasai, at the border with Angola, the city of Kamako saw its population triple in a span of three weeks. It was only at nightfall that one realised the gravity of the situation: there was not a square centimetre of the city that was unoccupied. Some slept under the stars, while others found refuge in churches and buildings.
As every street in Kamako was occupied, we had to move cautiously, for fear of crushing people … the closeness was immense and hygiene conditions deplorable. Faces dripped with sadness, expressions of uncertainty for some, and resignation for others. Returning to one’s country is often a truly arduous journey and the stories are poignant. Wracked by fear and the uncertainty of tomorrow, some admitted to having thought about suicide.
From one day to the next, thousands of people are thrown into extreme vulnerability.
More than 80,000 children, some of whom can barely stand by themselves, travelled tens of kilometres to return to the DRC. Many were separated from their families or were unaccompanied; some were victims of violence, aggression, and abuse of all kinds. Tired, starved and exhausted — what did they do to deserve this situation?
Almost 1,000 unaccompanied children have already been identified and taken into the care of UNICEF and of its partners. Most of them, having been born in Angola, do not understand Portuguese nor have any attachment to their extended families in the DRC. For these uprooted children, without anchors or links, even schools are not places of respite for them.
UNICEF is supporting returning children and their families through the installation of safe drinking water and handwashing posts, emergency shelters, distribution of mosquito nets, management of severe acute malnutrition cases, vaccination and establishment of learning spaces to accommodate school-age children.
Though the region of the Greater Kasai has just begun to recompose itself after the crisis of the past two years, massive arrivals of Congolese people from Angola risks destabilising a newfound balance in the region that is still very precarious. We must act quickly to protect our children and to ensure they have a peaceful future.
Alphonse Kalonji Tshikala is the Child Protection Officer in the Kasai region at UNICEF, Democratic Republic of the Congo.