18.08.09 09:06 Age: 3 yrs

Violence affects not only eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo


DR Congo

A training at the EEC centre in Kimpese for youth who went through early pregnancies and other gender-related difficulties. Photo: Nigussu Legesse/WCC

Any solution to the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) must engage the whole nation – not just the eastern region where violence is centred, a small ecumenical team visiting the Bas Congo and Kasai Oriental provinces has learned.


Karin Döhne, head of the Africa desk of the German Church Development Service (EED), and Dr Nigussu Legesse, WCC programme executive for Africa, visited the two provinces in July. They heard of the powerful sense of isolation and abandonment experienced by the people of the region, and learned of how the effects of the conflict in the east are felt in other parts of the country as well.


Legesse and Döhne were travelling as part of a larger Living Letters delegation, headed by WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, which broke into five groups to visit different parts of the country 8-11 July, before coming together in the capital Kinshasa, 12-14 July. "Living Letters" are small international ecumenical teams travelling to locations around the world where Christians strive to overcome violence.


In the Bas Congo province, violence is increasingly a feature of daily life, fuelled by tension over an array of factors including high unemployment, weak economic conditions and changing population dynamics as refugees and displaced people move to the comparatively prosperous province. In the past refugees arrived from neighbouring Angola, nowadays the displaced come from the eastern part of the DRC.


Resented refugees


"Refugees are resented, even when they are Congolese," said Legesse. "The church has to work hard at changing people's minds and overcoming feelings of distrust, even hatred, of newcomers."


In the province of Kasai Oriental diamond mining has left a complex legacy. During the second war in the DRC, which started in 1998, the dominant diamond company MIBA – jointly owned by the Congolese government and a Belgian investment company – poured both mining revenue and equipment into the government's war efforts. Now, with its capital and infrastructure depleted, MIBA has closed its production site near the provincial capital Mbuji-Mayi.


"Diamond mining was a major source of income for the local people," said Legesse. "It's a critical situation at the moment – there's no other real source of work." After years of urban growth, Mbuji-Mayi is now struggling as health centres close, school buildings fall into disrepair and many people struggle to afford basic necessities.


In the midst of this poverty and suffering, the Living Letters team observed diamond traders operating in the streets of Mbuji Mayi, dealing in diamonds worth tens of thousands of US dollars, produced from informal mining activities. "The soil of the province produces fortunes, but for the ordinary people or for public basic services not much is left said Döhne.


Sexual violence against women, especially young women, is on the rise in the DRC, the team was told – and HIV infections are consequently on the rise as well. In mining areas, very young girls offer themselves in return for money, food or shelter. It is not uncommon for men to have several partners and families, and most women have little economic security. Against this backdrop, churches have the challenging task of trying to promote responsible marital relations and parenting.


Churches respond to the crisis


In the context of this strife and hardship, the churches are providing a powerful witness. Churches are the biggest providers of health and education services in the DRC. In Bas Congo, more than 150,000 students study in church institutions. In Kasai Oriental, the Catholic Church runs over 3000 schools, and the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC) over 1400.


The Living Letters team visited the Institut Médical Evangélique, which runs a 400-bed hospital and trains doctors and nurses, and the Centre Evangélique pour la Coopération in Kimpese, which is in charge of hundreds of schools and a university.


Schools perform an important role beyond academic education: "They are seen as an important field where children can learn and practice peaceful co-existence," said Döhne. "They counterbalance the voices and actions of those who spread conflict and tension."


Under the umbrella of the ECC, a union of 62 Protestant denominations, the churches live out a practical ecumenism. "Member churches maintain their own identities, but for social services and projects they pool their resources and energies," said Legesse.


The Centre Régional d'Appui et de Formation pour le Développement in Kimpese, an activity of the ECC, mobilizes rural villages for community development and tackles the issues of deforestation and ecological damage.


In Kasai Oriental, where anti-personnel mines pose a severe danger and also hamper agricultural production, the ECC is working alongside an organization called Mines Advisory Group to raise awareness of the problem.


Even the seemingly everyday work of maintaining pastoral care in congregations is significant, said Döhne. For example, in spite of being impoverished, people in Mbuji-Mayi still invest in new church buildings. "It is of the utmost importance to give people hope and encouragement," said Döhne.


But the people feel keenly their isolation.


"Again and again we heard the message from church leaders in this region that they feel ignored by the international community," said Legesse. "Because the war and violence has been most intense in the eastern part of the Congo, there is a tendency to place less emphasis on the suffering of the people in other parts of the country."


Members of the delegation called for a show of solidarity from the churches of the world.


"The churches in the DRC want to continue to use their different avenues of influence in the country," said Döhne. "In doing so, they should be encouraged and supported by the worldwide ecumenical family."


More stories and photos from the Living Letters visit to the DRC


WCC member churches in the DRC