Diary of an aid worker: Their fate could so easily have been my own

Aimee Manimani

aid worker 300x225 Diary of an aid worker: Their fate could so easily have been my ownI was recently in Beni with a colleague from the UK where I was translating the testimonies of young girls who had suffered sexual abuse and in some cases forced to flee their homes. Since then I can’t stop thinking about the horrors suffered by so many children in the DRC and about how their fate could so easily have been my own.

When the conflict came to my city, Bukavu in 1996 I too was forced to flee. I was 12-years-old. Together with my family, we had to leave everything behind, our clothes, our house, our schools.

My mother and one of my little sisters went in one direction and I stayed with my brothers and one of my older sisters. The oldest amongst us was 18. We had no idea where we were going. We just followed the line of people, other families who were fleeing too.

We reached a certain point and were tired from our journey. We asked for help in a village and for a place to spend the night.  One of the women in the villages helped us find a place to sleep.

In the morning we were awoken by gunfire and men with long hair speaking in a language that we did not understand. They were armed with machetes, rifles and grenades. They told us to leave because they were about to burn the whole village. We were on the move again and in our rush to leave we became separated from my little brother. He was nine-years-old and handicapped.

My older brother went to beg the fighters to allow him to go look for our little brother. He managed to find him and carry him back to us in his arms. We then walked for another two days before arriving in a village where the people told us we should not stay because they were about to flee too. We followed them to a village called Muziru in Kabare province. During this part of the trip, my brothers and I were drinking water directly from the river and up-rooting sweet potatoes from the fields of villagers and eating them raw.

Once we arrived in Muzirhu we collected enough leaves and wood to construct a hut where we lived for 10 days. The worst time was in the evenings. I had never been so cold in my life. It is a mountainous region and it rained often and heavily. Once there was even hail in the rain. We had nothing  to cover ourselves with apart from the traditional cotton swathes of material that one of the women in the village had given us. My brothers lit a fire at night and sometimes during the day too to help us survive the cold. We lived on potatoes we pulled up from the surrounding fields and cut wood to cook them in the forest.

aid worker 2 300x225 Diary of an aid worker: Their fate could so easily have been my ownEvery time we saw soldiers around the corner we were afraid and families kept arriving from Bukavu. According to the new arrivals the city had fallen and there were many casualties along the road. We tried to get news of the rest of our family but without success because we did not know the new people who were arriving.

Finally after two interminable weeks we got word that it was safe to return to our homes. By this time the flimsy shoes we had left home in had fallen apart and we had to walk all the way back in bare feet, exhausted, wearing clothes that were now very much the worse for wear.

We were particularly afraid of running into soldiers in the city that might want to harm us. We were also worried that we would never find the rest of our family. I couldn’t bear to think of what might have happened to my mother and little sister.

When we reached Bukavu again there were bodies everywhere. I walked past the bodies of some of the children in my neighbourhood who joined in the fighting to ‘defend the city’. Other people were burying bodies close to where they lay in front of their own houses. Some were buried in mass graves.

The war here has claimed many victims. Children who find themselves orphans or the poor parents who can no longer cultivate their own fields. They have lost everything they worked all their lives to build, from one day to the next, as armed groups loot everything in their path. Even more painful are those parents whose children are taken from them to become soldiers in one of the many armed groups.

What is so heart-breaking is that all this has been going on for 16 years. As a child I too was forced to flee and was exposed to all these dangers and I have grown up without any of these underlying problems being resolved. At least today, working with World Vision I am able to do something to help other child victims of the same war. What is so painful is that there still seems to be no end in sight for this war.

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