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Hunger stalks Congo in war and peace

Congo blog photo

On the rocks: Neena holds her baby sister Amina outside their makeshift tent near a volcano in Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo:World Vision/ Paul Bettings

War or peace?

Democratic Republic of Congo's government has signed a peace deal with the M23 rebels who have been raping, pillaging and murdering their way across the mineral-rich eastern part of the country. since 1996.  But for the battered people who have survived years war,  hunger and deprivation are a daily battle.

And both are about to get worse.

"In the past six months, funding shortages have meant that the World Food Program has already had to halve the rations distributed to displaced people in the North Kivu province, at a time when the overall food security situation is deteriorating," said a bulletin from the UN agency earlier this month.

For thousands of "food insecure" -- read hungry -- school children the daily meal they can count on is no longer assured.  Some 180,000 malnourished children, pregnant women and nursing mothers across the country could also lose their vital rations, if international donors fail to stump up $75 million to bridge the gap from now to May 2014.

But with newer, urgent emergencies taking place in countries like Syria and the Philippines,  Congo's catastrophic struggle has fallen through the cracks of the world's aid efforts.

"Crops have been ravaged, homes burned and subsistance farmers don't have fertilizer," says Dave Toycen, head of World Vision Canada, who just returned from the strife-torn region. "The challenge is for people to find something they can work with. "

For women the plight is worsened by the danger of foraging for food for their families. "One woman was out collecting peanuts," said Toycen. "Two bandits followed her and raped her horribly. She was so ashamed she didn't tell her husband. When he found out he walked out and left her with four children."

In a particularly poignant case, a young girl called Neena and her baby sister Amini were sole survivors when a bombing raid destroyed her home and killed her family.  Carrying the child, she made her way to a refugee settlement where she lives in a makeshift tent pitched over rocky lava from a 2002 volcanic eruption. 

"She doesn't qualify for food distribution because she isn't with her family," said Toycen. "Neighbors do some scounging for her, and occasionally she goes into the national park, which is notorious for rape. At night she closes the tent flaps and piles up rocks to stop people from getting in. She's living in fear. "

World Vision and some other charities support displaced people in Congo:  "but we just don't have the resources to look after 50,000 people," Toycen says. Donations support basic medical and psychosocial care for wounded and traumatized people, and small grants to start up grassroots businesses. But even if the shaky peace holds, Congo's long journey to recovery is barely beginning.

"The encouraging thing is that word is getting out that women have rights, and boys have rights if they've been child soldiers," says Toycen. "Even among children there's a new realization of their rights.  It's a small first step.  After so many years of conflict we can be hopeful about the peace deal. But it's still hard to be optimistic."

Olivia Ward has covered politics, conflicts and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.











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