“It was 1 November. After a very turbulent period,
we were finally able to get to Kibati from Goma to bring
relief,” explains Lucy, a young volunteer of the Red
Cross Society of the DRC. “We knew that thousands of
civilians, including many women and children, had congregated
in this small camp for displaced people, which already existed
at the time. But the reality was even harder than we expected.
The new arrivals had nothing, absolutely nothing. No food,
no proper shelter and, in some cases, not even water.”
All night long, torrential rain had battered the earth in
Kibati, a village surrounded by two camps for displaced people
just a few kilometres outside Goma, the provincial capital
of North Kivu. In the early hours of the morning, under a
leaden sky, Agnès* emerged fearfully from a makeshift
shelter, shivering, terrified by what the day would bring.
The shelter in question was nothing but a rain-soaked piece
of cloth tied to the branches of a tree. Beneath it, a skinny
little boy barely 18 months old was asleep on a pile of leaves.
The mother sat by herself at the roadside, gazing bleakly
at the youngster’s torn clothing, her second baby clutched
to her chest.
Agnès and Lucy, both aged 24, had met at the entrance
to the camp. Agnès, starving, exhausted and visibly
traumatized, held herself apart from the rest of the crowd.
Lucy was a member of the Red Cross team preparing to launch
emergency assistance activities for displaced people in Kibati,
starting with the basics — distributions of food, water
and essential household items. A few days later, 50,000 displaced
people in Kibati were to receive food rations, while the
water-trucks began their daily rounds to deliver clean drinking
Victims of rape
The two women rapidly developed a rapport, and Agnès
confided to the volunteer that she had been raped during
the family’s flight. Bruised and rejected by her husband,
the young woman had only one reason left to live: to ensure
her children’s survival. “Agnès and her
little ones by the road to Kibati, that’s the image
that comes to mind when I think of these people’s suffering,” says
Lucy with undisguised emotion.
The health centre on the outskirts of the camps houses a
small construction made of plastic sheeting. Here, people
who have suffered particularly traumatic experiences, such
as sexual violence, are received in complete confidentiality.
It is a counselling centre, a place where victims of sexual
violence and other abuses can seek assistance. The ICRC is
supporting 34 such centres in North and South Kivu.
“Our counselling centre was looted during the violence
in October,” says Charlotte, another young Red Cross
volunteer, with sparkling eyes. “In November, we had
to start all over again from scratch.” Charlotte has
dealt with more than 200 women like Agnès since she
started out as a social worker. “After an assault,
the most urgent requirement is usually of a medical nature,” she
explains. “But we mustn’t forget that the victim
often has invisible wounds — psychological wounds that
take even longer to heal.
“When a victim comes to us, she is often shattered,
on the verge of collapse. In such cases, we let her rest
here. After that, she will probably go away, then come back
the next day. The important thing is that she feels at ease.
She also needs to understand that we will not divulge a single
thing, neither her story nor her identity. In order to find
a solution together, we have to build a bond of trust between
Charlotte remembers another woman in Kibati: Patience,*
a 37-year-old displaced woman raped in a field with her seven-month-old
baby on her back. “That was what gave her the strength
to fight tooth and nail against five armed men,” says
Charlotte. “The baby must have fallen out onto the
ground, and the mother found him later after her neighbours
“She did not say right away that she had been raped,
and I am sure she could not feel the bleeding wound on her
head,” continues Charlotte. “The only thing that
mattered was that she had found her child. She was so happy,
this mother, despite her ordeal.” The volunteer concludes: “Patience
was lucky. These stories generally end far more tragically.”
Beside the counselling centre is a DRC Red Cross unit whose
task it is to respond to another basic need: the restoration
of family links. Displaced people go there to write messages
to their loved onesseparated from them by the front line.
Most people come there for other reasons, be it to submit
a tracing request to find a child lost in the chaos of flight
orto let it be known that they have found an unaccompanied
“It is one of the big problems that occur during mass
displacements in our region,” explains Prosper, who
has worked for the ICRC for 15 years. “When there are
seven, eight, even nine children in a family, which is often
the case, the parents have trouble keeping them all together
and staying in contact with them in a fleeing crowd.’’ Prosper
has a mobile phone whose number is known throughout North
Kivu. The calls he receives often come from people with information
about unaccompanied children.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the names of unaccompanied
children registered by the ICRC have been broadcast three
times a day on five provincial radio stations. Dozens of
children have been reunited with their relatives thanks to
these efforts. “The smallest ones, those who do not
know their own names, are photographed and their pictures
displayed in sites for displaced people throughout the province,” explains
Near him, a tiny little girl is crying and hides her eyes
every time the Red Cross volunteers try to take her photo.
The displaced family that took her in christened her Grace,
since they don’t know her real name. The skeletal child
was found in a disturbed state next to the body of her father
in a village ‘visited’ by armed men. The photo
session over, Grace runs into the arms of her new mother,
looks back at the volunteers and then smiles shyly at Prosper.
The victims of the conflict will bear the scars of these
painful events for many years to come. Despite the violence
and the insecurity, aid workers like Lucy, Charlotte and
Prosper are doing their utmost each day to bring them a little
comfort in the midst of the horror.
People flee after fresh fighting erupted around Kibitz village,
7 November 2008.
©REUTERS / STRINGER, COURTESY
Children who lost their parents in the turmoil of fighting
eat at the Don Bosco centre in Gama in eastern Congo, 20
©REUTERS / FINBARR
O’REILLY, COURTESY www.alertnet.org