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Hunger: the Sunday Herald Christmas Appeal

A child in one of the huts burned out at the Kilimani camp in inter-tribe conflict
A child in one of the huts burned out at the Kilimani camp in inter-tribe conflict

THE corpses lay in a row, four women and two children. Wrapped in coarse blankets with only their heads showing, the calm demeanour of their faces belied the terror, savagery and pain brought to the last moments of their lives by the rapists and machete-wielding thugs who so often here grandly pass themselves off as "militiamen".

Relatives of the victims had carried the bodies of their dead loved ones to the town of Masisi where they were publicly displayed.

They did so both as an act of protest and in the hope that, once and for all, something might be done to rid them of the killers who haunt their daily lives.

"When you see the baby, you will never be able to eat meat again," announced one local women to no-one in particular among the crowd that had gathered outside the Masisi municipal building where the bodies lay on a blood-stained tarpaulin.

It was a discomfiting remark, but the woman's forthrightness tellingly caught the grisly sight of the youngest victim, a baby, whose face hacked away by machete blows was the only one to reveal the full extent of the unimaginable violence these innocent people had suffered.

How had these women and children befallen such a fate? Certainly, their death had come at the hands of men who can only be described as murderers. But long before that afternoon last month when they ventured into the dangerous bush country of eastern Congo in search of food, another potential killer had stalked their lives – hunger.

Living here means feeling like a human pinball, constantly ricocheted from place to place through forced migration, homelessness and the endless search for enough to eat.

Ranked last out of 187 countries in the Global Hunger Index, and last in the United Nations Human Development Index, the conditions under which so many people in this part of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) live are testimony to a huge nation pillaged of its vast natural resources and subjected to the worst conflict since the Second World War. More than five million people have died from hunger, conflict and disease in the country since 1998.

Staggering as such statistics are, they fail utterly to convey the misery that is endured here. Only the Congolese people's own stories can do that, which is why I had come to North Kivu Province to listen to them.

The remote town of Masisi lies among hills across which layers of sweaty, rainy-season mist hover for most of the day. Behind the town, in a valley full of brown mud and rotting vegetation, lies the Kilimani camp for internally displaced people.

There I met Augustin Rwajekyera, Munihere Mbalibukira and Raymond Nguiba, who make up the camp committee. Respectively members of the Hutu, Hunde and Pygmie tribes, their willingness to work together was evidence that the tribal tensions that bedevil this area need not be the norm.

"Here we share what little food we have," said Rwajekyera, the camp president. "Security, food and shelter are what we need most whether we are Hunde, Pygmie or a Hutu like myself," he tells me, pointing to his colleagues in turn.

Just a few yards from where we talk sit the remains of camp huts burned out in retaliation a few weeks earlier by some members of the Hunde community in response to the killing of a Hunde man. Some within the camp, mostly Hutus, once again found themselves uprooted. The same fear and insecurity that had forced these people from their home villages in the first place was back stalking and coercing them into an interminable cycle of flight, homelessness and hunger.

Eastern DRC is plagued by various armed groups and over the last six months UN peace-keeping troops and the Congolese army have been preoccupied with containing a rebellion by a group known as the March 23 Movement (M23).

So focused have the UN and Congolese government military resources been on this rebellion elsewhere in North Kivu Province, that many areas around Masisi have been left virtually unprotected.

This has allowed other smaller armed "militia" groups, some tribal or local in nature and often no more than gangsters and thugs, to roam freely. The result is a climate of fear that now runs through both the Hutu and the Hunde tribal communities in the region.

Faced with this predicament I asked the camp residents of Kilimani what would make the most difference to their lives.

"Food and security," they replied almost in unison as we sat in the large hut covered in plastic sheeting that served as their communal camp meeting place.

"How can we ask for things like education for our children when we can't even eat?" pointed out one elderly woman, Hellena Kahindo.

"When we can eat, return to our homes and they close the places where they make bullets and guns then perhaps our problems will be solved," Hellena added, summing up the views of most Congolese here who face the anarchy imposed on their lives by an armed mercenary minority.

As ever, beyond the immediate consequences of violence, it is women, children, older people and those with disabilities and health problems that suffer most and remain the most vulnerable.

On the rainy season tracks gouged from the mud that pass for roads here, we drove further out from Masisi to meet people from tiny communities that only days before had to flee the men with Kalashnikovs and machetes.

The rain hammered down with a force that has to experienced to be believed. Here and there entire hillsides had fallen away, making roads impassable. In one instance in a nearby village, the rich brown Congolese earth had crumbled like cake, bringing death to dozens caught in its path.

Looking out from the comfort of our jeep I watched an endless string of mainly women and children barefoot in the mud, drenched to the skin and bent double under massive loads of firewood or jerrycans of water.

Theirs is an endless journey, carrying, fetching, hauling. It's backbreaking labour but if not undertaken it means not having water to drink or a little food to eat or the means to cook. Such sights are like stepping back in time but remain a contemporary African leitmotif.

The sheer physical demands of such a life are testimony to the human spirit and will to survive in the most difficult, unforgiving and dangerous of environments.

It was that same will to survive that led Roger Bwira, Colette Bihango and other villagers, many of them children, to flee when armed men of a local militia group known as the Mai-Mai overran their village near Lukweti in the volcanic hills of North Kivu province.

The fierce reputation of many Mai Mai groups is based partly on their beliefs and practices. Some are convinced they can dodge bullets if their hair is styled a certain way and they sprinkle themselves with sacred water before battle. For many civilians, however, the Mai Mai only bring fear and death.

"We heard gunfire and many of us in the village began to run," Roger Bwira recalls of that day in September. "I had six children with me, the youngest three years old, the eldest twelve, and they were running with no shoes."

Colette Bihango, 38, also remembers the panic that day.

"Everyone was scattering and some people went into the river to escape but were swept away to their death," she tells me.

Such was the terror and chaos that it was only when Bwira halted to rest with his exhausted children some hours later that his wife noticed the wound on the left side of his skull where a bullet had grazed him.

Cold, soaked through and hungry they and other villagers marched for two days before arriving at the camp for displaced people at a place called Bonde.

For the first few nights they slept in a makeshift church before other displaced people took them in or helped them build rough huts made of grass and plastic sheeting.

Even here, however, people are not safe, according to one of Bonde camp's council members, Kitsa Kahangi, who has been at the camp some time.

Every day when the women go in search of food or firewood they run the risk of rape or death at the hands of roaming "militiamen" just like those women and children whose bodies were brought to Masisi.

"What choice do we have when we need to find food," says Kitsa with a shrug of resignation.

"We feel traumatised, our children can't settle, there is no school, no safety and above all very little food," he tells me.

"It has become impossible to remember the good times."

More than ever people like Kitsa Kahangi, his family and tens of thousands like them depend on outside help.

Along with other aid agencies, Concern Worldwide has been working in conflict-ravaged DRC since 1994. It was in 2004, however, that it began some of its operations in Masisi, which is now temporarily home to almost one third of all families displaced in North Kivu according to the United Nations.

CONCERN'S local and international staff responds day in, day out to the diverse needs of those most affected by the continual displacement caused by this ongoing conflict.

They provide livelihood and food security assistance through voucher schemes, cash transfers, seed and tool distributions, as well as agricultural training and cash-for-work road rehabilitation activities. All of this helps put food in the mouths of those most at risk.

Time and again in displaced persons camps like Kilimani and Bonde I was to hear how such help was the only thing preventing people from falling entirely into the abyss of hunger and homelessness.

"Without this help there is no doubt that many of our children would die," says Rwajekyera.

"We know how difficult it is for agencies like Concern to keep up the support they give us, but still we will need their help for some time to come until we can return to our own homes."

Following the deaths of the four Hunde women and children whose bodies were brought to Masisi, tensions have once again escalated across this region in recent weeks.

In the immediate few days following that atrocity, I watched as yet more villagers streamed into the hills, fearing attack. At night from my bunk inside Concern's compound in Masisi, I listened to the hushed and fearful voices of women and children fleeing in the night along the road outside.

I tried to imagine the panic of their flight in the inky darkness, how they felt caught up in this never-ending nightmare and the necessity of leaving your only home behind.

Worst still, I imagine the stark possibility of dying at the hands of merciless thugs, disease or hunger, and what it must be like to know that nobody is coming to the rescue.

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