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A portrait of courage
Iolanda Jaquemet

Janvier Buuma with Hafashimana.
The fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has destabilized the country and led to large-scale movements of the population seeking to escape the violence. Among those helping the most vulnerable caught up in the spiral of conflict are the first aiders of the Red Cross of the DRC, unsung heroes saving lives at the risk of their own.
The evening Janvier Buuma was caught in an ambush in the wilds of Masisi, he thought his last hour had come. There were many "savages", as Janvier terms the bands of armed men who sow terror and death in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while he was with just one other Red Cross volunteer. Together, they were taking four unaccompanied Rwandan children - on foot, of course - to Goma, capital of Kivu province.

"They told us to drop everything and sit down," recounts Janvier. "I took advantage of the darkness and a nearby pile of stones, the result of a rockfall, to make my escape." His companion followed suit pursued by a hail of bullets from their assailants, but got away with a superficial head wound. Only the eldest of the children managed to join them. "The three others were under 10 years old," says Janvier. "I never found out what happened to them."

That was in February, and Janvier has since been haunted by "remorse for the children I retrieved and lost again in that forest". Now each child he brings back to Goma is like an atonement for the ones who were snatched from him. Today it is Hafashimana. The boy says he is 12 years old, yet his face, with its unsettling gaze, is that of an old man who has seen it all, while his twisted body is hardly bigger than a six-year-old's.

Two years ago, he fell into a deep pit while fleeing the Masisi killers. The horrific fracture he incurred was never treated, and he now walks on his left leg alone, with the withered right one coiled around a crude stick. Hafashimana is Rwandan, and since the genocide in 1994 his life has been a sequence of tragedies: his father was beaten to death in 1996, his mother died of malaria, his younger brothers were killed by soldiers, and he himself had to flee into the DRC's equatorial forest.

Finally, he was taken in by a host family, until the day Janvier met him in a village in Masisi. This afternoon, he is being placed by the ICRC in a home for children in Goma while they search for his relatives in Rwanda. Failing that, he will be sent to an orphanage.

The Congo River couriers

The road network in the vast expanses of this country has always been more of a logistic nightmare than practicable thoroughfare, especially during the rainy season, which transforms the beaten earth into a succession of potholes. The conflicts of the 1990s did the rest. For the most part, expatriates working for humanitarian organizations rarely venture from the towns, unless it is by air to get to another more or less "secure" place. The term does not entirely fit Kisangani, capital of the Eastern Province with around one million inhabitants, which on several occasions since August 1999 succumbed to the fighting. It is from Kisangani, surrounded by the equatorial forest, that Alexandre Liebeskind, working out of the ICRC office with the help of about 100 local staff, set up his tracing network which has been in operation since the end of 1999 and is gradually expanding. To cover the immense hinterland to the north and west of Kisangani, National Society volunteers pass the baton (Red Cross messages or unaccompanied children) from hand to hand in the course of an epic journey of over 1,000 kilometres. From Zongo, a town on the frontier with the Central African Republic, to Gbadolite, one-time Mobutu stronghold, they go by bicycle and by boat. Then comes the descent to Lisala, embarkation point for Bumba on the Congo River, followed by the "train" (in reality a lorry mounted on train wheels that runs on the old tracks dating from colonial times), then by bike again to Kisangani. The bicycle is of the essence. Alexandre Liebeskind counts a skilled cyclist among his volunteers who takes three days to travel between Kisangani and Buta, 400 kilometres to the north. "He's been doing this for a year, and it works!" The trip through the equatorial forest is certainly as challenging as any of the mountain passes of the Tour de France, the risks are greater, and of the glory of the spotlight there is none.

Kinshasa: Red Cross
first aiders repatriating refugees to Brazzaville

Against all odds

Hafashimana squats down painfully and starts to sip from a bowl of warm milk. Janvier continues: "My career as a primary school teacher, which I pursued for seven years without pay, was a big let-down," he says, with somewhat of an understatement. His wife's small business selling salted fish, with "a capital of 30 dollars", did not yield enough to feed their three children. So, at 30, he decided to do the training course for Red Cross first aiders run by the ICRC. The US$ 35 a month that the organization pays him helps to "keep the family alive".

Across Masisi, the fields of death stretching to the west of Goma, Janvier traverses back and forth bearing Red Cross messages or bringing back unaccompanied children. With his colleague he recovered 12 youngsters between January and mid-April, and "we found many others ready to follow us". He walks sometimes up to 30 kilometres at a stretch every day from Monday to Saturday, under the beating sun or through the mud, along steep, narrow paths where, as the February incident demonstrated, "we risk our very lives". If need be, Janvier will not hesitate to carry the children - he walked for kilometres with Hafashimana on his back until they reached a road accessible by car, from where he hitch-hiked to Goma.

Channelling the goodwill

That is how the National Society works - on a shoestring and sustained by daily acts of heroism that go unnoticed. The shock waves of the 1990s have seriously damaged the National Society's capacity to act as a single entity in a territory that has now been carved up, but individual first aiders have leapt into action. More than 20 died during the 1996-1997 conflict, often while trying to protect the lives of refugees.

Foreigners are taken aback by this habit of "leaving for the front" without a backward glance. "Barely two days after the inter-ethnic conflict erupted in Bunia in the summer of 1999, I received a detailed report from the secretary of the local Red Cross branch with a tally of the bodies buried by volunteers in the middle of the forest!" says an admiring Philip Spoerri, head of the ICRC's mission in Goma.

In 1997, the ICRC initiated a training programme to help out the National Society momentarily stripped of its means by the conflict. Since the end of last year, training has been under way for disseminators, first aiders, tracing officers and evaluators, who have become the essential "arms and legs" of the ICRC, for nobody knows the terrain like they do. Today, in the eastern half of the country alone, the Red Cross has a network of 24 branches and 38 sub-branches where, for the legions of Congolese cut off from the outside world, Janvier Buuma and his kind provide a link with the rest of humanity.

Iolanda Jaquemet
Iolanda Jaquemet is a freelance journalist 
based in Geneva.

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