The men came screaming out of the darkness, some firing AK-47s, most wielding bows and arrows or razor-sharp machetes. They had laid waste to a nearby village hours earlier and were now doing the same to Tche, a rural community in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The terrible, undulating war whoops of the attackers were soon joined by sharp shrieks of women pierced by arrows and the cries of men being killed with pangas.
Nyine Richard tossed his three-and-a-half-year-old son on his back, grabbed some belongings and dashed into the darkness with his wife and three other children. Lotsove Matutina was carrying their youngest and their two-year-old girl, Rochelle.
Four men overtook Nyine, cornering him. He could see their faces and knew them all by name. They were ethnic Lendus. He is from the minority Hema community.
The Democratic Republic of Congo's many conflicts have led to a humanitarian crisis that rivals any — from Syria to Myanmar — on the planet. And DRC’s youth have borne the brunt of the hardship.
Studies of children have determined that war and terror lead to “significant levels of psychological distress and psychiatric problems following exposure to conflict,” including PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders.
By the end of January of this year, children made up 800,000 of the 1.3 million people displaced by inter-ethnic violence by armed groups, and between such militias and the Congolese military, in the provinces of Tanganyika and South Kivu.
First, the men asked for money. When Nyine said he had none, they began swinging their machetes. It all happened in an instant, though the moments were the longest of his life. A blade sliced down, opening a large vertical wound from the top of his head to just above his left eye. Another strike opened a deep gash stretching diagonally across the back of his head. Still another found the base of his neck. Another his right shoulder. Another his left arm. Still another cut into his lower back leaving a deep, grievous wound. It may have been one of these blows that also killed his young son.
Men with machetes set upon his pregnant wife, too. And her baby. And her toddler. All three soon lay in the blood-soaked dirt; little Rochelle Ngabusi was lying face-up, a deep wound to the top of her head, another that divided her delicate face with a diagonal gash running from her right temple all the way down her chubby left cheek.
The couple’s eldest child, 11-year-old Mave Grace, stood stunned, watching as the militiamen cut her mother, again and again, with machetes. Some of them turned on her. The force of the panga strike to her left arm severed it at the wrist. But it may have been the swing that tore into her head or the deep cut at the base of her neck that ultimately closed her eyes.
Until they reopened.
Groggy and disoriented, Mave staggered to her feet and bound up the stump of her left arm with some cloth. There were bodies scattered all around. Close by was the body of her mother. Also dead was Mave’s youngest brother, Baraka Dz’rodjo. Next to them was little Rochelle. Her her tiny head was split two different ways, but she was miraculously alive. Mave pulled a fabric wrap off her mother’s body and strapped Rochelle to her back. As she picked her way through the ravaged village, filled with smoldering remnants of homes and mutilated corpses, she came upon a neighbor, a young boy whose leg had been badly wounded by a machete. Mave reached out with her right hand and grasped one of his, helping him along as she searched for her father. She found another tiny boy, still clinging to life but with both of his legs severed. She knew there was nothing she could do for him and continued on.
When she came upon Nyine, her father was soaked in blood, but his eyes were open and alive. He called to Mave, telling her that he was too badly injured to move, incredibly thirsty, and that she needed to find help. By this time, local men who escaped the raid began emerging from the forest around Tche to look for survivors. Mave hailed them and brought them to her father — saving his life, saving them all.
The violence that engulfed Tche is part of a constellation of conflicts affecting the DRC, a country the size of Western Europe that sits on $24 trillion in natural resources but is, nonetheless, one of the world’s poorest nations. While it has received a fraction of the media attention and aid response it needs, Congo’s many conflicts have led to a humanitarian crisis that rivals any — from Syria to Myanmar — on the planet. And DRC’s youth have borne the brunt of the hardship.
Yves Willemot, a spokesperson for UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, tells Teen Vogue that areas of the Kasai region, in the middle of the country, as well as Tanganyika, South Kivu, North Kivu, and Ituri provinces, in the east, are all marked by insecurity. When violence erupted in the Kasai region in August 2016, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes, it left 3.8 million people, 2.3 million of them children, in need of humanitarian assistance. At least half of all children under five years of age — about 770,000 of them — in that region are suffering from acute malnutrition, including 400,000 young people who are severely malnourished and at risk of death. By the end of January of this year, children made up 800,000 of the 1.3 million people displaced by inter-ethnic violence by armed groups, and between such militias and the Congolese military, in the provinces of Tanganyika and South Kivu. For Congo as a whole, nearly eight million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, 7.4 million are unable to attend school, and more than two million are suffering severe acute malnutrition. That equates to about one in five children in the entire country, according to Willemot, and about 12% of the global cases of this most dangerous type of undernutrition.
Congo’s children face myriad misfortunes, Willemot tells Teen Vogue: violence, recruitment by militias and other armed groups, sexual abuse, epidemics of polio, measles, cholera, and Ebola, as well as high childhood mortality.
“Even though significant progress was made in the last decade, still one child out of 10 dies before the age of five in the DRC,” he says. UNICEF also counts killing, maiming, and sexual violence against children as “key features of the conflict.”
For the first months of the year in Ituri province, members of the Hema ethnic minority, like Mave and her family, were relentlessly attacked by roving bands of militiamen, most of them from the Lendu ethnic group. By the time that the wave of massacres — carried out mostly with machetes, axes, spears, and bows and arrows — ebbed in mid-March, roughly 120 communities, including Tche, had been attacked. Hundreds were killed and thousands of homes were destroyed. Tens of thousands fled to neighboring Uganda. Many more, like Mave, became internal exiles.
I first met Mave and her family at a hospital in Bunia, the capital of Ituri province. She, her youngest sister, and her father were all recovering from their machete wounds. Mave’s left arm ended in a cocoon of stark white gauze, a bandage covered the top of her head, and her 10 toes and five fingers were painted bright pink. I found her again, weeks later — head bare and shaved, arm healed and unbandaged, nails in their natural state — at a clinic just up the road from Bunia’s largest camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
- “Every day we come to Bigo. Even though we wait for five or six hours, they never see us. And then we just leave.”
When I first met the family, while reporting on the ethnic cleansing campaign in Ituri for Vice News, Nyine Richard appeared so badly wounded and frail that I wondered if he would leave the hospital alive. But he, his three surviving children, his sister, and her three children were now living in a plastic tent in the IDP camp.
“I’m grateful to God,” he said. “My children are healing and I’m much stronger. But the camp is the camp. I can’t say that life there is good.”
Most days, Nyine’s side of the family wasn’t in their blue tarpaulin home but at the Bigo clinic for wound checks. The trip was often for naught. “Every day we come to Bigo. Even though we wait for five or six hours, they never see us. And then we just leave,” Nyine said. He explained that Rochelle’s head wound continued to weep pus and that he worried it had become infected -- and that was only one of many fears. Nyine explained that his family was given some extra rice and beans by some “white people” — apparently some foreign aid workers or missionaries — who took pity on them. It was a godsend, but now it was nearly gone and he had no idea how his children would be able to rebuild their strength on the camp’s lone daily meal. “If I were fully healed, I could work. But this,” he said, gesturing to his still bandaged back, “makes it very difficult.”
Nyine also wondered if he even had a village to return to. Days prior to meeting with his family at the camp, I had traveled with Congolese troops to Tche and surveyed the burned shells of homes and looted shops. I pulled out my phone and showed him a picture. “That’s the market!” Mave said, leaning in to examine the photos of battered shops and half-destroyed houses. “I remember it before everything happened. You could get everything in the market. Fish, all sorts of foods, vegetables, clothing. You could find everything there.”
Mave told me that she hoped to go back to Tche and, more importantly, back to school. She wants to be “a nurse or even a doctor,” helping people with injuries, people who are in pain, she said.
- “On the outside, it’s OK. I don’t feel any pain. On the inside, though, sometimes I have a real problem. Sometimes it aches.”
There is no shortage of physical pain in Congo, but psychological distress is even more widespread, not to mention enduring. A 2013 study of war victims in Bunia — survivors of a conflict that raged from the 1990s into the 2000s and became known as “Africa’s World War” — found that 40% of those surveyed met the symptom criteria for probable posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those suffering from PTSD had far more difficulties with social contact and in doing their daily work. “The impact of war-related violence on mental health is severe in the DRC,” the authors found. Studies of children have similarly determined that war and terror lead to “significant levels of psychological distress and psychiatric problems following exposure to conflict,” including PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders.
“Repeated violence in conflict situations has individual repercussions of a social and psychological nature that are closely linked and weaken the usual support mechanisms — community, state, family,” UNICEF’s Willemot tells Teen Vogue. “In most cases, children develop mechanisms of resistance that allow them to absorb and overcome the violence they suffer, but they maintain exacerbated sensitivities — called anxious sensitivities — related to the events they witnessed.”
As we talked, Mave reflexively grasped her injured arm, holding on to the limb just above where the attackers severed it. She cradled it and carried it and used her remaining hand to gingerly move it. I asked her how she was feeling and she pointed to where her left arm now ends. “On the outside, it’s OK. I don’t feel any pain. On the inside, though, sometimes I have a real problem. Sometimes it aches,” she explained, her lips tightening into a grimace.
Someday soon, Mave may return to a village where she no longer has a house, where everything of value was looted or destroyed, where the market was demolished, where memories of the worst moments of her life will hang heavy in the air. Just how Ituri province’s one-armed women, maimed men, and crippled children will survive the long road ahead is anyone’s guess. The same can be said of their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, whose limbs may be intact, but who lost everything, who saw too much, who fled into exile in Uganda or squalid camps in Congo.
While the massacres have abated, at least for now, almost no one I spoke with — not United Nations experts, expat analysts, humanitarian workers, hundreds of displaced people — thinks the violence has ended for good. This is what survivors now have to live with: the memories of massacres barely ended and the fear of carnage just over the horizon. This is the world 11-year-old Mave Grace now needs to navigate.
On the day I met her, I asked Mave how she was able to save her family, despite being gravely wounded. She told me that she owed it to God’s grace and left it at that. But I persisted, noting how exceptionally strong she was — physically and mentally. She offered a shy grin and looked away with embarrassment. “I did what I needed to. That’s all,” she explained, staring down at her pink toenails. “I had to do it. My family needed me.”
This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.
- “On the outside, it’s OK. I don’t feel any pain. On the inside, though, sometimes I have a real problem. Sometimes it aches.”
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