Magazine article Anglican Journal

Nighttime Images Return to Haunt Congo's Children of War: No One Knows How Many of Population of 2.6 Million Were Slain in Vicious War

Magazine article Anglican Journal

Nighttime Images Return to Haunt Congo's Children of War: No One Knows How Many of Population of 2.6 Million Were Slain in Vicious War

Article excerpt

Brazzaville

"My aunt cried, but I never did."

Look into the eyes of 11-year-old Justivel Lubata and try to imagine how he felt when he witnessed the shooting of his uncle, but you will find no answer. Is he proud of his man-like stamina? Or was he too deeply shocked to react? Eighteen months later, his gaze still reveals no reaction to the first of the countless killings he was to watch during the 1998-99 civil war in The Republic of Congo.

But the memories live in his mind.

"I see pictures at night," Justivel murmurs.

Nobody knows how many of the country's 2.6 million inhabitants were killed during the brief but vicious war, but as it drew to an end, 810.000 people were displaced, and thousands maimed.

"They shot so many people," says Justivel's friend, 9-year-old Cynthia Joel Landau. "Sometimes we had to step over them when we walked."

"The Walk" is a euphemism for the prelude to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters ever to strike this fertile land. As rebels from the southern districts launched a surprise attack on the capital, Brazzaville, in Dec. 1998, the entire population of the city's southern parts fled, fearing reprisals from government forces. In two days, 350,000 people streamed out of their homes and poured down the main road towards the south of the country.

Almost immediately, thousands of rebels followed in unruly retreat, hotly pursued by ruthless government soldiers -- none of them showing any concern for the plight of the civilian victims of theft strife. As the conflict spread south, each devastated city or village added its citizens to the number on the run, estimated at close to a million before the end of 1998.

Justivel was 9 years old when he and his family set out for safety. "I carried a sack on my head with my clothes and some pots for cooking. My younger brother Mariot carried dishes and his clothes." In three days the children covered 150 kilometers trying to escape the militiamen and the pursuing soldiers.

Justivel has no memory of any special reason why rebels shot his uncle, but he does remember, "we had to leave him in the road and then we continued. I saw too many dead people." Three days later, when his family reached the southern town of Bele, it was still quiet.

But "soon the war also arrived there," he says. "We had to sleep in the hospital because there were helicopters shooting and our house burned."

For months, the little boy woke up at night, screaming from ghastly images returning to haunt him. "When I met him half a year later," recalls Sister Marie-Therese Nkuka, who is helping traumatized children, "somebody turned on the ventilation fan in the ceiling, and the boy shot straight under the table. He thought it was the helicopters returning."

Justivel and his family finally managed to slip across the border to neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where they were housed in a refugee camp.

They were the lucky ones. The vast majority of the refugees only found shelter in the giant rain forest of Congo, where they survived on roots, berries and whatever game or fish they could bag. …

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