At the side of traumatized children
Prospérine Masika, a member of the Secular Institute of Our Lady of Schoenstatt, is in charge of a program to help orphans in the diocese of Butembo-Beni, Congo. The project collaborator of the Kindermissionswerk (Children's Missionary Work) reports on her work and experiences with children who have experienced terrible things.
The children are the focus of our work, and with the help of the Kindermissionswerk we decided to take care of these especially vulnerable children…We listened to them and offered them support in our rehabilitation program.
Since 2014, rebel groups have been terrorizing the civilian population in the north of the diocese of Butembo-Beni. They kill, rob, rape and kidnap. More than 4,000 people were killed and many more injured and mistreated. Most of the victims are adults. But what happens to the children who have lost their parents, who were victims and witnesses of the most horrible acts and are now defenseless?
The number of orphans that we support together with our partner schools has risen sharply: from 565 girls and boys in 2016 to 862 in 2020. All children used the same term when they talked about the death of their parents: “Balikondaka Papa, balikondaka Mama”, they said in their local language. Translated this means: “You knocked down daddy like you cut down a tree, you knocked down mummy like you cut down a tree.
The children perceive death differently: they had to learn the difference between natural death and murder. They said to us: “At least Papa died of an illness from this or that and was buried with dignity. My papa was strangled or decapitated. He was buried in a plastic bag, sometimes cut into pieces or already decomposed. You could only tell by the clothes that it was him. We couldn’t even bury him for fear of the enemy.” The children accept that everyone must die one day, but they do not accept the way their parents had to die.
Nightmares and fears
In all the village communities we visited, we encountered deep fear, terror, insecurity and fear of the unknown. Post-traumatic stress levels are very high throughout our region. Especially children develop the feeling of being neglected and abandoned, which causes an identity crisis. They ask themselves: Who do I belong to? Most traumatized children have nightmares. Combined with fears, the experiences come up again. The unsteady gaze of these children also makes their fears clear. Many can hardly tell what they experienced during the massacres. They tremble and cry. They are afraid of military uniforms that remind them of the murderers of their parents.
Again and again the question of the identity of the rebel groups is raised in the villages. Why, after so many years of suffering, has the Congolese government still not managed to control these groups? At the same time, many have great hope that God will save his people. Many survivors went to church to pray after the attacks. The image of Our Lady carrying a child in her arms especially calms the children. Some say, “When I look at the picture, I think of my mother cradling me and singing to me. I was moved to see the gifts the children brought to church for their parents at the funeral Mass: they all brought palm nuts and cocoa, the fruit of their parents’ fields.
It was a strong message. Because those who kill and plunder steal the palm nuts, cocoa and wood from the trees. If we ask children about their parents’ memories, they only tell us good things: they remember their mothers’ lullabies, the walks with their fathers, the good meals, the fact that their fathers encouraged them to learn and took care of them when they were sick.
Challenge for the assistants
We find it difficult to respond effectively to the needs of a fragile population: Both adults and children are severely traumatized and have little freedom of movement due to the constant danger of armed groups. They live from agriculture, but constantly fear rape, abduction or even murder as they cultivate their fields. In such a complex environment, it is difficult to define priorities. However, one of our priorities is clearly to support orphans who have been victims of terrible acts. We want to prevent them from suffering the same fate as their parents. Nor do we want them to be recruited by a militia to avenge their relatives. They should feel that they are not alone, that we are with them, that the Church is with them.
Our faith in God and the solidarity of the Church helps us. It is also good to see that our efforts have an effect and help children. The recognition and gratitude of the people in the villages also strengthens us. To better cope with the psychological burden, we helpers meet regularly and exchange ideas. Although we are also vulnerable, we try to be an example for the children. Many perceive us as a substitute for the parents. The positive results of our work, the children’s resilience and the support of our project partners encourage us to continue our work. It is very gratifying for us that almost 90 percent of all the children we accompany have good grades and have passed the school year. In addition, we were able to observe positive development and psychological stabilization in most of the children.