The suffering of the disabled living through the ethnic conflict in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is only seen now that the fighting has abated. Church-funded community groups are picking up the slack as the UN and international aid agencies scale down their work in the country.
The World Bank estimates that 10percent of the world’s population has a disability, and 80 percent of these people live in the developing world and are often abandoned to fend for themselves.
In the DRC city of Goma, after the UN closed down displacement camps there, people with disabilities had to return home using their own means. “They may live 90 kilometers away, which is a five-day journey,” said Katanda Nembee, program manager for Council of People with Disability (COPH), a coalition of religious and community groups. “How do you cope with that?”
“We find that people with disabilities are often not considered when international agencies are developing a strategy for aid. They can be the last thing to be thought of in these situations,” she said. “For example when food trucks arrive they often drop off food at the entrance to a displacement camp. How do you get to the truck if you are blind or disabled?”
Katanda said many of the disabled get trapped in remote areas and are unable to seek refuge in the camps outside the cities. “It is only in the last two years that we have been able to identify the victims of conflict because they were hidden before then. Now the roads are open and field teams are able to reach the remote areas, where 70 percent of the people with disabilities can be found. This year we are seeing how heavy the impact of the war has been. Most NGOs are wrapping up now that the war is over, but for groups working with [people with disabilities] this is when the real work starts.”
COPH works with people with all forms of disability from communities in the Goma, Masisi, and Rutshuru regions of eastern DRC, although it mainly focuses on displaced people affected by blindness. Katanda said that although disability is a complex issue, poverty is generally the common ground. “Part of the challenge is changing the perception of the community and showing that people with disabilities can be of use to themselves and to the community, that they are not just beggars. But it is a slow process.”
Csiuziki, age 37, described what happened to her after she went blind from cataracts 12 years ago. “I gave birth to my six children while I was blind, and I didn’t know what any of them looked like. I had to breastfeed by feeling for the baby’s mouth, and I didn’t get to watch my children grow up. I was totally dependent on other people to feed me and take me to the toilet,” she told me.
Csiuziki lost one eye completely two years ago when she had an accident while escaping from Hutu rebels, who are believed to have been involved with the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. “I was taking refuge in a bush and a branch hit my eye, so I had to get an artificial eye. I was completely blind when we fled to Goma. I just had to follow the mob and hold onto people. When they left me behind I had to crawl on my hands and knees. It took me four days to reach the displacement camps.”
In the camps, Csiuziki came to the attention of a COPH field team and was brought to the hospital to have her cataract removed in a quick and simple operation.
“I saw for the first time in years when the doctor removed my bandages the day after the operation,” said Csiuziki. “Then when I saw my family for the first time I couldn’t believe that all those children were mine!”
The return of her sight has brought Csiuziki a new independence and an improved quality of life.
“Now I am able to earn my own income, by selling charcoal or flour, and I can read the weights on the scales so I know I am getting a good price. Whereas before, when people gave me money and I sent the children off to buy things they would keep some money for themselves and I would never know! Now they are better behaved because they know I can catch them out.”
Neglect is the biggest problem facing people with disabilities, according to Father Estache Tsorove, the director of Caritas in the Diocese of Bunia. “There are very few services for people with disabilities in this country and they are marginalized by society,” he said.
Four years ago Caritas joined forces with five other religious and community groups in the diocese to form Synergie Simama, a group that helps those suffering from disabilities.
In Bunia, they are sponsoring a woman’s association that offers counseling and training to those injured by conflict. The diocese donated the facilities where the groups hold classes for women in tailoring, embroidery, and baking.
Georgine, 19, is learning tailoring. She was attacked with a machete when a rebel group from the Lendu tribe raided her village in 2002. “They came during the night and entered each house while we were asleep,” she said. “We tried to run but they were already at the door. They attacked us with machetes. They killed my brothers, my sisters, my grandmother, and my aunt. I was slashed on the back of the neck, head and side, and one of my fingers was chopped off. When I fell down they thought I was dead too and they left.”
Georgine’s mother and father escaped the attack and it was her mother who found her the next day among the bodies of their slain family. She had lost a lot of blood and was taken to a local clinic for treatment. Initially, the family moved to a house owned by the local church until they were able to secure a house in Bunia.
As Georgine described her attack, she avoided making eye contact, staring fixedly into the distance. The group’s psychological counselor, Yvonne Bura, said that like many of the other women here, Georgine has been traumatized and feels she is no longer valued. “What we find is that sometimes the women here have difficulty concentrating. They can sleep in class because they are too scared to sleep at night.”
Kalongo Rwabikanga, project coordinator for Synergie Simama, said, “Disability goes with all other aspects in the local community. Poverty is one of the aspects that make people disabled. It is useless for us, and a waste of resources, if we just focus on treating disability without seeing how we can prevent disability.”
Kalongo lost 11 members of his own family in the ethnic conflict in Bunia from 2001-2006, and he said that, with more than 300 different tribes living in Congo, ethnic tensions remain a problem. “The conflict comes in waves here and new militias spring up all the time. While Goma is affected by fighting between the Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, in Bunia we have ethnic conflict between Congolese tribes. But the main cause is poverty. The militias recruit the poor by telling them they will receive food, money, and social standing.”
Synergie Simama funds a grassroots employment training program run by members of the community in the village of Bogoro. This is the site of a massacre in 2003 by Ngiti and Lendu ethnic rebel groups against the resident Hema tribe, in which more than 200 people were killed in three months of sustained violence. Two alleged militia leaders are facing trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for charges of alleged murder, inhumane acts, sexual slavery, rape, and using children to participate actively in hostilities, among other charges. While this case is receiving international attention, in a small training center at the edge of Bogoro, local people, internally displaced people, and people with disabilities from all three ethnic groups are working side byside learning tailoring, welding, carpentry, and small-scale farming, along with running a road-side restaurant to help fund their programs.
Ngozi, 18, from the Ngiti village of Kagaba, lives at the training center with his sister. He was discovered in a displacement camp in the neighboring village of Vilo by a community field team. He lost both his legs when he stepped on a landmine in 2007 on his way home. His injuries were devastating and left him completely dependent on his friends and family. “I could not afford a wheelchair so I had to crawl on my hands. Everyone neglected me, apart from my mother, and they looked down on me because I could do nothing for myself.”
Last year Ngozi’s village was attacked by a looting militia, and he escaped when his friends took turns carrying him to Vilo. On joining the project in Bogoro his independence was restored when he received a tricycle wheelchair. He is now training in welding and hopes to set up his own business.
Kpakai, 16, lives with her uncle at the training center in Bogoro after the community team also found them in the Vilo displacement camp. She contracted polio very soon after birth and lost the use of her legs. To walk she must drag her body along with her hands.
“I left home last year,” Kpakai said. “We heard the conflict come near and people starting running, so we picked up a few clothes and supplies and ran. My father was killed by the militiamen, but the rest of us escaped and I am very grateful to my uncle, who carried me the whole way. It took a day of walking to make the 16 kilometers to Vilo, where we joined a camp. The journey was difficult because my condition means that I feel pain if I move long distances. I get tired and I can’t stretch my legs.”
Kpakai has always felt isolated within her community because of her disability, but through the skills she is learning in Bogoro she hopes to prove to her family in particular that she is not worthless.
“When I am walking around it is like I am not valued by society,” she said. “I know my family hates me. Only my uncle and my grandmother like me. The rest have no interest in me, because I am of no use to them.”
“But since acquiring skills in tailoring here, I don’t think about home or the bad things that have happened to me,” she continued. “I am grateful to the community for changing my life. When I leave here I am going to start up a sewing workshop and earn a living. Once I start working I am sure it will change my family’s opinion of me.”