“Effort et Joie” (Effort and Joy) is painted in light blue on the first of four tin-roofed buildings that comprise Benahamba Primary School. The school yard, where the children used to play, is an uneven clearing of red earth, punctuated by a few small mango trees. Behind the school rises a hill, covered in low but dense vegetation.
The militia descended from this hill, emerging from the forest camouflaged in leaves, decorated with traditional medicine and firing their machine guns into the air. The men are thought to be from a militia known to locals as Hapa Na Pale, meaning “here and there” in Swahili.
“It was about 11am and I was in class with the children. Suddenly, I heard gunshots,” recounts Ngongo Mputa, a teacher at the school. According to Mputa, about 60 men surrounded the school. The gunshots caused the children and teachers to panic and they ran out of the classrooms attempting to flee. Chaos ensued and the men began to round up boys.
“Some of the teachers were begging the men not to harm the children and leave them alone. They beat them and pushed them. They took eight children from my class.” They surrounded the hostages and disappeared with them into the forest. Altogether, the militia took 18 children and five teachers that day. None have been seen since the raid in Sola — in Kongolo District in Tanganyika Province, the Democratic Republic of the Congo — in December 2017.
Leonia Kanut, 12, who escaped, feared the worst. “I thought they were going to kill us.” She fiddles with a pen as she talks. “I was crying, everyone was crying.” She managed to run home. “I remember all the families were standing outside waiting for their children. They were crying. I got home and my mother was waiting for me. She hugged me, then we ran away into the bush.”
‘Never go back to school’
Kabamba Muchimba, 13, narrowly escaped being kidnapped. He becomes nervous and agitated when recounting the event, his big eyes darting around nervously. “My mother said that I must never go back to school,” he says. “They took my friend Lambert. They even took a very small boy.”
The “small boy” he speaks of is likely Muteba Simugabo. Probably the youngest of the victims, he was seven when he was kidnapped. His father, Muteba Simugabo Laky, has no hope left. “They are all dead,” he says grimly. Sitting on a wooden chair outside his house, he gestures towards the hills. “I searched for my son in the bush, I have spoken to people in the other villages. No one has seen any of the children ever since they were taken. They are dead.”
If he is wrong, the alternate theory is not much better. Armed groups in the DRC are known to use young boys as soldiers, sometimes as porters and cooks. He is unhappy about the lack of response from the authorities. “To this day, no one has come to me to tell me what happened to my child. Not the police, not the army.”
The raid on Benahamba was the second such raid that Hapa Na Pale had carried out on schools in Sola. According to a local education official, 20 children were taken from another school less than a month earlier, bringing the number of kidnapped boys to 38. Five teachers were kidnapped, too. The militia burned down other schools. The raids came during conflict between Hapa Na Pale and the Congolese army at the end of 2017. This conflict resulted in a massive exodus of people from the area. Some have still not returned.
Scars of war
Not too far from Sola another village bears the scars of war. At a school in Mbulula, a group of children act out a play under a tree. The “teacher” is giving a lesson and asks a question. The “pupils” put up their hands, offering an answer. It’s a humorous and accurate portrayal of a real Congolese classroom.
Suddenly, a group of boys storm into the classroom firing homemade toy guns. The boy “soldiers” are draped from head to toe in leaves and one by one the children fall to the ground pretending to be dead. The audience responds with delight and laughter, but the performance is chilling in its realism and paints a detailed account of a Hapa Na Pale raid.
The children are part of the school’s Peace Committee and are part of a programme backed by Unicef (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) to use drama and art to deal with the dangers and effects of the ongoing conflict in the area.
It’s not only Hapa Na Pale militants who terrorise children in the region. At another school in Mbulula, Chungu Mbayo Felicien’s eyes tell their own story. Large and unblinking, the 14-year-old has the thousand-yard stare usually associated with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. His story is horrific.
During ethnic violence in the area, Chungu and his family were fleeing an attack on their village when they ran into a group of armed men in the bush. After handing over all their belongings, his parents and sisters escaped. Chungu was forced to watch as his two uncles were murdered and dismembered.
One was shot with an arrow and then had his throat slit. The other was hacked to death with machetes and then cut into pieces. The men carried his severed legs away with them. They laughed and told Chungu he was free to go. He made his way alone to Mbulula, the journey through the bush taking several days. There he managed to find his parents.
Chungu is still visibly traumatised by his ordeal. He wears a constant frown on his face and his eyes, expressionless, speak of unfathomable pain and trauma. He has had no psychological counselling or therapy. His ordeal is just one of many to which children in the area have been subjected.
The scale of the violence in Tanganyika has decreased but attacks on villages continue sporadically. Mondeki Prosper, his wife Safi Victorine and their five children had to flee when their village came under attack from a different Mai Mai group in September. They fled to Kongolo, losing their cows, goats and chickens. Their home was burned down. “We stayed with my relatives when we arrived,” says Victorine, “but there were just too many children. We had to rent our own place.”
Now they work in the fields for locals whenever they can. They are able to earn a little bit of money but not enough. None of their five children is able to attend school because there’s no space for them. The programme is already oversubscribed.
Making safe spaces
There is some hope for the young victims of this brutal violence. All over South Kivu and Tanganyika, schools are crowded with children from morning until evening. Together with partner organisations, Unicef has been supporting efforts to get all the children back to school and to allow those who missed school during the conflict to get up to date. Displaced children are given extra lessons. Teachers are incentivised to spend more time with the displaced children. Safe spaces are created where children can play and they are all fed every day.
It’s not only displaced children that benefit. Schools in the host community are given extra educational and recreational material and the local children benefit, too. But even Unicef is not able to help everyone. There are simply too many people who have been touched by this particular conflict — and numerous other conflicts continue to rage throughout this massive country.