Refugee Stories: Listening to the victims of the Beni massacres

The following interview was done by Merveille Kakule Saliboko, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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[Ed. Note: To read this interview in French, click here.]

In Beni, North Kivu province, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the La Charité Bilingue school complex is home to 4 orphans of the Beni massacres. More than a thousand people were killed in three years of massacres in the city and territory of Beni. These massacres, attributed to ADF (Allied Democratic Forces, Ugandan militia operating in eastern DRC), have caused the displacement of several thousand Congolese in the region. The displaced are in Beni and Butembo in host families.

In Beni, I had the opportunity to talk with the victims of these massacres, in the compound of the school complex La Charité Bilingue. This school has 208 primary and 22 kindergarten students. Sarah is the only orphan in kindergarten, the other three being in primary school as Julien, familiar to Sarah. Julien’s mother is called Soki Lwanzo. She is the first to express herself in front of my camera, in the courtyard of the school…

Merveille: You are a victim of the massacres. How do you deal with it now?

Lwanzo: We learn manual labor. Because, they have seen that unlike fieldwork, manual labor guarantees us at least a small profit that can enable us to pay the children’s tuition fees.

Merveille: Can you tell us personally how the period of the massacres took place?

Lwanzo: I, God, had given me thanks. We were there with my husband; we had just spent about three months to plant beans and peanuts. Immediately afterwards, I fell ill, very ill even and then my husband had brought me here to the hospital for care. After feeling well, I promised to join my husband after vaccinating the baby who was only one year old … it was on a Friday, that we suddenly learn that there was a massacre In Eringeti center.

As a result, I had forbidden him to return to the field but he had refused. And so I went to tell my mother-in-law but in vain. He left on Monday and by bad luck he was a victim in the massacre on Wednesday of the same week. His little brother had been saved by hiding in the forest. In the morning he had returned to the hut to see if there were any survivors, little Sarah was at home and reporting the death of her mother and uncle killed in the headline. The little brother of the victim and the little Sarah went directly to Eringeti center and without the presence of her uncle (the little brother of Sarah’s father) Sarah was going to die of hunger. That’s all I know.

Merveille: Since that day, have you personally already visited the scene of the drama?

Lwanzo: On the day my relatives were killed, people were called to pick up the body of members of their families. Then the authorities again said that the passage is blocked because the ADF elements prohibit access in the forest. From then on, I never went to see it.

Merveille: How do you experience this trauma?

Lwanzo: There are times that happen to me. But mostly children, sometimes they lose the urge to go to school. When you ask them why, they say they remember their father, sometimes even when they see a face resembling their father.

I, too, begin to understand and mourn today. And since this drama, I live in my in-laws.

(I stop the camera and end the interview with this survivor of the massacres. Next comes Dhimbe Buma Naomi. She is responsible for kindergarten at La Charité Bilingue school complex. For 2 years, she takes care of Sarah whose behavior she describes…)

Merveille: So, madam, can you tell us about this orphan child who is kindergarten here? How do you see her behavior in class? Does it fit?

Naomi: Yes, there is a change in her life in general. Because at the beginning, so her first year here at home, it was really difficult. Because when she met other children outside in the yard, or even in class, there were days when she woke up badly. She was only standing upright. She is told to sit down and refuse. Or she wanted to be left alone. And if you approach her, she pushed people, made that push others without sitting. Or else she was only crying so much that we could no longer care for the other children. All she did was take care of herself until she calmed down. There are times when all toys had to belong to her, even the teacher she wanted to own me to herself. If you want to touch her, she was just typing. On other days she only broke, abused things, in any case everything. If it was in the courtyard, she was just tapping the others. So it was really difficult to frame it. Sometimes if you send her to the board, she wanted to work alone, with no one else beside her, even if you could send four at a time. For her, in any case, she had to be left alone. We endured that for the first year.

Merveille: And how did the change happen?

Naomi: The second year the day she wakes up badly she comes but does not talk to anyone. You greet her she does not answer. And if you’re interested in her, she has to leave school and go where she wants. For how long? Even thirty minutes. And if you try to follow it, she picks up stones and throws them to everyone, even to the teacher, In any case to everyone. You are obliged to leave it, then you let it go by observing it until you tire of it elsewhere. It is afterwards that she will return herself, on her own initiative. And she returns to follow course. Sometimes there is an activity you are doing with other children, she comes in and gets very calmly without speaking to anyone. But if you come to this is what interests her, she is very intelligent, and she is courageous. It may be even hereditary, I think. She also loves her teacher, she loves me anyway, and that’s why I attract her. I begin to make gestures and she approaches by shouting “me too” and then I manage to take it with the others saying “Yes, it’s Sarah’s turn…» And now she works a lot. And I take advantage of this state to motivate her more. I give good examples on her by asking the other children and they appreciate her by her courage.

However, even today, the day when she woke up badly, it does not go! That day, you have to wait until she calms down that things can work. Because she pushes others, breaks things, types, etc. And some situations disturb her. It’s like when she saw the presence of the mother who just came out of the courtyard ah, it disturbed us, she just beats the others, and she refuses things to people…

In short, she is a girl who, on the day when she wants to work, she wins. But on the day when she awakes badly, she only commits blunders, wants to work alone. And the day she misses food (snack or something at home), she begins to ask others and once she is given, she begins to say thank you in the way of the old moms, so in a sincere way. I think it’s something she’s imitated somewhere.

(Adapt! How? After the teacher, I talk with Kasereka Tsongo Siméon. He is the director of La Charité Bilingue primary school…)

Merveille: How do teachers and you school authorities do to answer the whims that can be presented these children victims of the massacres?

Siméon: First of all, I thank you for coming to us to immerse yourself in the reality of the children we are hosting in our Charité Bilingue school complex. Precisely of all that you have just related. We have two sections: in primary school we have six classes, and at the maternal level, it is a rising school that has two levels of level 1 and level 2. Of a total of 208 we have at least 27 Children who are orphans including 4 orphans of the massacres. I will therefore speak of two cases: orphan children who are not massacres, then those who are orphans of the massacres.

Compared to children who are orphaned of massacres, they really have several whims. Fortunately for us, there are games that we organize in the mornings at the show, but also we have been trained in trauma: how to help a child traumatized. All teachers have taken this training at the beginning of this school year. We have been taught that to help a traumatized child, you must first understand, call the child to you, listen to him and feel as if you were the one feeling, as if you were the first one victim. This is where you will know how to help the child. It is in this way that we are gradually landing these caprices. We have also been trained in conflict management, because you know that these children attended the massacres of their parents. We do everything to show them that especially the Eternal God is our father, He is going to help us in all our lives, and we have to trust him. So we show them salvation.

For children who are not orphans of the massacres, we show them that the only father, the father of the orphans is God the all-powerful. We also organize cults often every Monday. There we show the children that it is God who protects us, it is he who keeps our lives, it is God who protects us, even if we can have or not have parents.

Merveille: And you think this trauma can fade after how long?

Siméon: I think it’s little by little, it’s not for a session; it takes time. And we have planned activities for the whole year. Besides, it will be for three years. If we have difficulty managing them because we need money, it can happen. But we have now taken a pedagogical method so that we can overcome these caprices, these traumas.

Merveille: Which method?

Siméon: For example games. We have to have gambling halls. You have to take a short stroll with these children. We organize small conferences with these children where children can express themselves. We also do poetry every morning. And we also have a partnership with UCBC (Bilingual Christian University of Congo). We also have a listening session with a psychologist. She takes care of our children. She spends every Tuesday and Friday to listen to them, their difficulties, to help them. This is in short what we have undertaken to try a little bit to overcome these traumas in which these children find themselves.

(To adapt, that’s what I have in mind when Sarah appears before the lens of my camera. On Wednesday, October 28, 2014, this girl lost her two parents and her maternal uncle in Bango, near Eringeti, on the Kainama road. That day, she and her parents were there. She survived…)

Merveille: Hello Sarah?

Sarah: Yes, good morning.

Merveille: Is it ok for you, being at school?

Sarah: Yes!

Merveille: Here at school Charité…

Sarah: Charité Bilingue

Merveille: Why is it bilingual, in your opinion?

Sarah: I’m here to study.

Merveille: What do you like to study here?

Sarah: The number 1, the number 2.

Merveille: You like numbers. Do you like to play too?

Sarah: Yeah.

Merveille: Do you have a lot of friends in class?

Sarah: Yeah.

Merveille: Like who?

Sarah: Prisca, Gemima, Zawadi,…

Merveille: And the teacher?

No answer.

Merveille: Do you like French?

Sarah: No!

Merveille: Why? It’s too difficult?

No answer.

Merveille: You like the number 1, the number 2. And what else?

Sarah: The number 4.

Merveille: Why do you like numbers?

No answer.

Merveille: Sarah, what would you like to do in life? Do you have any idea what you want?

No answer.

Merveille: Do you want us to speak in Kiswahili?

No answer.

(Now is Julien. He is attending La Charité Bilingue elementary school. He is the son of Soki Lwanzo. On October 28, 2014, he lost his father and his paternal aunt in Bango. This is Sarah’s family … Also adapting to Julien…)

Merveille: Mr. Julien, you are in school La Charité Bilingue. What do you like about school here?

Julien: I want to write English.

Merveille: Can you give me a few words in English?

Julien: Good morning. Yes, good morning. How are you? I’m fine. What is your name? My name is Julien. Where are you going? I’m going to school. I forgot about others.

Merveille: Ah! You have forgotten! But you are already very strong in English. You amazed me. Hey! Julien, what would you like to become in life?

Julien: I would like to become a motorcycle because Mom says so.

Merveille: Do you have a lot of friends here at school?

Julien: Yes, we play football and basketball with them.

Merveille: How are you playing?

Julien: The basketball is marked with hands and foot with feet.

Merveille: You are in what grade of primary?

Julien: I’m in my third year.

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Merveille Kakule Saliboko is a Congolese journalist based in Butembo, North Kivu province, in eastern DRC. He works for radio, television, online and written press. In May 2016, he was awarded the Amani Presse Prize for peace journalism in North Kivu, awarded by AJVPD Tupashe Amani and MONUSCO. Its award-winning article, “l’agriculture contre la guerre”, which appeared in Afrique Agriculture in March 2016, speaks of displaced people fleeing the ADF massacres and who, pending the return of peace to their respective communities, cultivate land in the Butembo to re-socialize. With Pax Christi International, Merveille hopes to be the bard of peace.

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