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Home > About US > Magazine > Congo: Portrait of a Neglected Crisis


World Vision Magazine, Winter 2007

By Kari Costanza
Photographs by Jon Warren

Waiting for safety at home, a young boy in Mugunga camp battles hunger, disease, and sheer boredom.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision
More than 1,000 people die daily of hunger or disease. Life expectancy is a scant 43 years. Nearly half of all school-aged children aren’t in school. Yet these facts of life and death in the Democratic Republic of Congo don’t typically make the nightly news. One of the world’s most neglected crises, Congo continues to suffer the grisly vestiges of war — quietly and off-camera.

But it is people, not numbers, who fill in the picture of a country in crisis. Here are three stories of families striving for normal lives amid the turmoil.

This is where he might have found her: high on a hill, her bare feet firmly planted in soft, rich earth — soil as black as the volcano from which it came. She would be working, gently tugging away at the weeds that threaten her cassava and bean plants, a breeze fluttering down the mountain, cooling her face against eastern Congo’s warm sun.

Following in her husband's footsteps, Leoni is now a skilled farmer.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

Perhaps she would hear him coming, breathless from his climb up the steep mountain path, a package in his hand. He was always spoiling her. “He knew my weakness for clothes,” says Leoni Kabatsi, 43, of her husband, Ftaki. “When he came home from a journey, no matter where I was, he always came to find me. He was not a perfect man, but since he died, love, for me, died.”
In 1998, Ftaki’s life ended in tragedy. “A tank came from Goma,” says Leoni. “It started shooting. He started running. When he arrived home, his blood pressure was dangerously high. Stress killed him.”

Finally at peace, Lume village at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains once was the scene of abductions and murder.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

Leoni’s husband was just one of nearly 4 million people who have perished in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998. Not since World War II has a conflict cost so many lives. Today, there is fragile peace, and in 2006, the country held its first free elections in 40 years. But the misery hasn’t ended. Every day, 1,200 men, women, and children die from disease, malnutrition, and violence. Skirmishes between various rebels and government forces continue, driving people away from their homes and into squalid camps.

Congo, home to 65 million people, looms large in Africa.
About one-fourth the size of the United States, Congo contains the lion’s share of the continent’s natural resources. Its borders flank nine other nations — many of them also war-torn. But other crises and conflicts regularly eclipse this country’s troubles.

Forgotten by the world, Congo desperately needs humanitarian aid. So do mothers like Leoni, who soldier on, continuing to search for a better life for their children, in spite of all that conflict stole.



Ftaki’s death exacerbated a string of catastrophic events in Leoni’s life. Two years before, in 1996, the family had fled fighting in their community, Kirotshe, west of Goma. Leoni and Ftaki traveled on foot with their five children to the nearby Minova camp.

Leoni and her children at the grave of Leoni's father.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

“It was suffering in your heart," says Leoni of the six-mile journey. Along the way, they saw a murdered relative. “They took his head and cut off his body. They just left his middle part,” she says, gesturing to her midsection. They saw Leoni’s friend, Mary, also decapitated.

The suffering continued at the camp — a disease-ridden, tarp-encased nightmare.
“Life was very hard,” Leoni says. “Pacifique [her son, now 14] was very malnourished. He was about to die. He was skin and bones.”

Leoni’s daughter, Safi, 17, remembers the two years the family spent at the camp. “Many IDPs [internally displaced persons] died, mostly of cholera. We stayed three families under one plastic sheet. No one could go to school. We just sat.”

Then Leoni’s son George died. The little boy was only 4. “There was no good medical treatment,” says Leoni. “He got anemia and died.” Losing George was the last straw. Leoni and Ftaki decided to take their chances outside the camp and return to Kirotshe. “We said, ‘Let us go back to our land,’” she says.

But the fighting continued, sometimes forcing them to flee from their home. “There was no time to get anything,” says Leoni. “When the bullets started firing, we started running. Everything was looted.” Even, she says, the family Bible. The constant threat of violence kept everyone on edge, especially Ftaki.

After her husband’s death, Leoni was devastated. “For three years, I could not even look at his photo,” she says.

With World Vision's help, Leoni has cautious hope.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

Then, in 1998, World Vision came into the picture. Staff started working in Kirotshe, first helping malnourished children through nutrition programs. Sustaining families came next.

World Vision became Leoni’s partner: “With training, skills, seeds, and tools,” she says. “With special cassava to grow and an agronomist to help us take care of our livestock. With goats and rabbits.”
Today, goats scamper all over Leoni’s property. Her children go to school. Pacifique, once on the brink of death in the camp, is an excellent student with a gentle heart. “I want to do commercial finance,” he says, picking up a neighbor’s baby just to give her a little squeeze.

Leoni is a community leader. As president of Kirotshe’s health committee, she visits 15 families every month to ensure they are properly nourished and practicing good hygiene. “Since we started, we have seen an impact,” she says excitedly. “The death rate is down.”

Leoni has become a good farmer. “I now have skills that allow me to do much like my husband did,” she says. “I am sure my husband would be very happy.” Her hand rests on an old photo album open to his picture. Ftaki looks back from its pages with a smile.




An old photo album was among the few possessions Jolie Fwambe, 18, took with her when she escaped Bunia, northern Congo, in 2003. Her mother, widowed by the war, had gone to another town to buy plantains the day the rebels came. Jolie, then 14, shoved the album and a radio into a small bucket and fled with her sister and two brothers — ages 3, 2, and a newborn.

“The four of us went in the safest direction,” she says. “We stayed on the main road. Many children died trying to cross the Ituri River.” Jolie searched in vain for her mother among the refugees. “I said, ‘I am the firstborn. I must go with my siblings. If we suffer, we will suffer together.’”

And suffer they did. “We couldn’t find food to eat. The children cried all night, ‘Where is Mother?’ I lied to them and said, ‘Mom is just ahead.’” They walked for more than 70 miles with others until a group of soldiers stopped them. “We stayed for two weeks,” she says. “We lived like dogs, eating food from the ground.”

Fingering her photo album, Jolie prepares for her family's future.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

Things came to a head when the soldiers made an example of a woman in the group. “They took the baby from her back and killed the mother with a knife. Then they took the baby and shot it,” she says, throwing an imaginary baby into the air and making the pow-pow-pow sound of a rifle. “There was blood everywhere. They turned to us and said: ‘Who is trembling? Who is feeling pity?’ They said they would find us and kill us, too.”

Jolie kept her wits. She brought out her radio and sold it to the soldiers. With the money, she bought a space on a truck for her little family. The truck took them to Beni, north of Goma.

Today, Jolie lives in an IDP camp in Beni and continues to care for her brothers and sister, who all go to school. Jolie runs a little market, stocked with buckets, pots, pans, cups, toothpaste, school books, and even lollipops.

She brought her family to the right place. “World Vision came to look after us — we who were separated and abandoned,” she says. “They gave us things. They brought biscuits. They even came on Sundays to stay with us.”

World Vision also helps unaccompanied children find their parents. And although Jolie now knows where her mother is, she has not yet been able to see her because of tensions in the area. “She lives in a place I’m afraid to go,” she says. The two communicate via a brave bicycle messenger.

Someday, Jolie wants to build her mother a house and care for her. “My mom must be weak, as she is a widow,” she says. “I am strong.” But for now, Jolie’s family is complete only in her battered photo album.


Claudine Kabuho, 56, gave her husband’s photographs away after he disappeared in Lume, west of Beni in northern Congo.

Claudine mourns her husband.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

As she leans in close to whisper the story, slivers of light cascade down through bullet holes in the roof. “In March 2000, my husband was abducted. It was at midnight. They knocked at the door,” she says. “When they come, they don’t want you to look at them. They tell you to close your eyes.”

In an instant, her husband disappeared into the darkness, never to be heard from again. Claudine says it would be better if they killed him on the spot. “Then I would know where to bury him.”

And the photographs? “I let the family take them all,” she says. They caused her too much pain. “He was a peaceful man. He loved everybody.”
Claudine’s son, Katembo, 12, still cries when he thinks of his father. “Father bought me a football and other things that made me happy,” he says wistfully. On this day, Katembo is not in school. One of his classmates has died of malaria, and school has been closed out of respect to her family. In Lume, even in peacetime, diseases such as malaria and cholera continue to claim children’s lives.

Reporter's Notebook: Life in the Congo

Watch this short video to see more of Claudine and Katembo's story. It begins with the event that changed the family forever the abduction of her husband.


Katembo loves school. After his father died, he had to drop out. “My mom could not afford to send me to school, but World Vision sent me to school. Before World Vision, my mom had debt every month,” he says.

When World Vision offered to help, Katembo was leery. “We saw other organizations come here and make promises and never come back.” World Vision, he says, doesn’t lie.

His mother became president of a community organization. “We received seeds from World Vision,” she says. As president, Claudine was charged with distributing the seeds to other widows. She learned to farm as well. She now works with a group of women on a demonstration garden.

Katembo tackles a math test.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

“Anyone in this town can tell you, World Vision taught us something new,” Claudine says. “The people are good people. They are kind. They want to take care of people.”

The women now have a big goal. “[World Vision] taught us how to work,” says Claudine. “We are working. We are producing. But we are having a problem managing what we produce. Now we need machines to make flour. With that flour, we could make porridge for the children.”


For Katembo, life is nearly normal. “I wake up,” he says. “I wash my face, and I brush my teeth. I take a bath, and I eat. After eating, I go to school. After school, I feed my goats. After that, my day is over.”

Someday, he wants to marry. “I want her to be a farmer, like my mother,” he says. “I want her to be polite and to respect her neighbors.”

And his dreams for himself? “I want to become a photographer,” he says. This is a new goal, after several days of acting as an assistant to the photographer for this story, shooting Polaroid pictures of his mother and friends.

Claudine credits U.N. security forces with Lume’s stability. Congo claims the largest number of U.N. security personnel in the world, with nearly 20,000 military and civilians currently keeping the peace. “Things have calmed down,” says Claudine. “Now we can farm. We can even sing again while we’re farming.”

With peace, children like Katembo might thrive.
© 2007/Jon Warren/World Vision

Now that most of the gunfire has ceased, the world no longer listens to Congo’s song, a bittersweet melody that includes equal parts pain and hope. Around the globe, there are scores of countries like Congo where people wrestle to find happiness during hardship, neglected — but worthy nonetheless.

Horeb Bulambo Shindano, a communications officer for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contributed to this story.

Learn More


>>Read "Snapshots of Suffering," the stories of two women in the Congo.

>>Learn more about the neglected crisis in the Congo.


Two Ways You Can Help


>> Ask God to comfort and protect the children uprooted by continued fighting, suffering from preventable diseases such as malaria, or mourning the loss of family members. Lift up World Vision staff ministering to these children and their families in the name of Christ.

>> Sponsor a HopeChild in the Congo. World Vision in the Congo is participating in our HopeChild program to provide additional resources for children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in this high-prevalence region.
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World Vision Magazine Winter 2007The feature above was published in
World Vision MagazineWinter 2007 [pdf, 3.83 MB, 32 pages].

Also in this issue:

The Price of Peace
Humanity’s inhumanity can only be overcome by agents of forgiveness and peace.

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