GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 11 March 2008 – Moka, 13, was hiding at home with his family when the mortar landed. “It killed my grandfather and my younger brother,” he says. “We saw them dead, blown up, burnt.”
Last September, as fighting between rebels and government troops engulfed their village, Moka and his family fled, joining the nearly half-million Congolese from North Kivu province who have been displaced from their homes in the last year. But even in flight, the violence followed Moka’s family.
“I saw people with their insides opened up by bullets,” he remembers. “They killed people right in front of us. One time, they came to where we were and fired into the crowd on purpose, killing people. When I think of it, I always cry.”
Today, Moka lives in one of the many camps for displaced Congolese just outside Goma, the capital of North Kivu. His family left everything behind in their rush to escape. Moka’s only shirt – purple and short-sleeved – is covered in black dirt; his olive shorts are torn at the pockets.
‘Each one has a story’
But recently, Moka’s life has taken a turn for the better. Each morning, Moka joins some 650 other displaced children at the Nyabyunyu Primary School in a nearby village. “School is what helps me forget,” he says.
Psychosocial counsellor Evelyne Kimema looks after the 650 displaced students at Nyabyunyu Primary School.
Due to the influx of displaced students, the Nyabyunyu school to run two sessions per day. Its teachers have had to learn how to deal with hundreds of children who have lived through violent conflict and are often deeply affected by that experience.
“More than 600 children – more than 600 stories,” says Evelyne Kimema, a psychosocial counsellor who is based at Moka’s school with the Congolese non-governmental organization Alpha Ujuvi.
Signs of stress
Each day, Ms. Kimema watches the students for signs of stress. “We notice it most during recess, because they’re supposed to be moving,” she says. “There will be a child who’s in the corner, who’s not playing with the others. Others will be sleeping, another won’t talk, another will be sweating, although he won’t be running around at all.”
Ms. Kimema takes these children aside one by one to talk to them about their problems. “It’s difficult – they don’t change quickly,” she says. “But little by little, the more you approach a child, the more you talk to him, the change will come.”
The counsellor has seen Moka blossom since he started at the school. He says the memories of all that he has seen still haunt him, but his teachers and the new friends he has made at school – most of whom have stories just like his – help him forget.
Moka, 13, who lost a brother and grandfather to the violence in DR Congo, now attends the Nyabyunyu school.
UNICEF supports similar counselling programmes in more than 50 schools throughout North Kivu, where only about half the child population currently attends school.
Counselling essential for education
In spite of a recent peace accord, fighting continues in North Kivu, and displaced Congolese have been hesitant to return home, making children’s education a major concern for UNICEF and its partners.
UNICEF Education Specialist Sayo Aoki says psychosocial counselling is essential for children who have experienced conflict.
“The violence, the poverty, the culture – there are many reasons why children are not going to school,” says Ms. Aoki. And even when the children do go to school, she adds, “a child cannot focus because of the psychosocial stress.”
Helping children through their trauma “is a very slow process,” notes Ms. Aoki. “But I think this is something we have to do for the next years to come so that we can provide a more peaceful environment for children to study.”