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Silent victims of violence: 4 million children orphaned in Congo

More than 4 million children have lost at least one parent in Congo over the past two decades, the silent victims of continuous cycles of violence.

And more than 26 million orphans live in West and Central Africa, where Congo is located — the second highest number in the world behind South Asia, according to the United Nations.

These children have grown up amid conflict fueled by ethnic strife and the fight over Congo’s valuable minerals. The violence and displacement are eroding the tradition of families caring for their own.

The breakdown in family means some orphans are forced to look after themselves and their younger siblings. Some are vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups.

And many also face sexual exploitation, in a country where rape has become commonplace on the streets.

“They are the orphans with a story of violence since 1994 — it’s a generation of victims that continues,” says Francisca Ichimpaye, a senior monitor at the En Avant Les Enfants INUKA center.

And the children “lose their story in the violence.”

As Congo falls once again into violence in the face of a delayed election, here are profiles of some orphans in Goma.

ALPHA MELEKI, 6

Alpha Meleki was found in a pile of bodies after an attack by rebels on his village in Congo’s eastern Beni earlier this year. He had been shot and left for dead with his parents in the bush.

The bullet wounds and the vine-like surgery scar on the 6-year-old’s pudgy belly have only recently healed. He hobbles around, pulling his loose shorts up on his tiny body.

The emotional scars are still fresh. When held by someone new, Alpha sits limply. His large eyes glaze over, and sometimes glare with angry distrust. He saves his smiles for those he trusts, often seeking the hands of adults he knows.

He cannot stand to see others suffer. Whenever another child at the INUKA center needs medical attention, Alpha cries and screams.

In a quiet moment, he touches a short, wide scar on his head. He lets others touch it.

“They hit me with a machete,” he recalls.

The center says it could take years to find any family members, as attacks persist in the northeast.

JEANNETTE UMUTSI, 17

At 17, Jeannette Umutsi has become the caregiver for her little brother, whom she hopes to protect from the horrors she has seen.

At first she recounts her story stoically and with distance. She was born only a few years after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide spilled into Congo. Armed fighters stormed her home, hit her in the leg with a shovel and nearly killed her sister.

She and her family fled her hometown of Kirolarwe in 2008 to escape the violence. In the next village, she hid in a toilet enclosure with wooden plank floors for three days to save herself from another attack. Alone, she would sneak out to grab tomatoes that grew nearby.

For days, she heard gunshots and saw dead bodies, including that of her uncle. As she continues to talk of violence, she breaks down into tears and gasps.

“I have so many nightmares now. So many nightmares,” she says.

Her mother returned to save her. But she later died after giving birth to her brother Shukuru, now 5.

Her father used to be a fighter, she says. Once, he threatened to kill her with a machete. As she talks about him, she folds over herself, head in her skirt, and the fear is palpable in her eyes.

Finally she fled the family. She wrapped Shukuru up, put him on her back, and walked for days, struggling to breathe, on the way to Camp Mugunga in Goma. She is now an older sister to more than a dozen other children at the INUKA center, where she helps cook the fish and rice for lunch and rounds the kids up for naps.

MOISE, 7, AND AGATA MUNOKA, 5

Moise Munoka, 7, sits still, looks down and speaks in a near whisper when he recounts the loss of his mother.

She died in 2013 after health complications from rapes left her quite sick. Rape is a constant in Congo, where it has become a weapon of war. At the Children’s Voice Virunga Centre in Goma, where Moise and his sister Agata gather during the day, at least 30 children were born of rape.

Though Moise never knew his own father, he knows that he was probably a fighter who raped his mother. When asked if he wants to meet him one day, he scrunches his nose up and shakes his head in disgust, “No!”

He is happy to have left his war torn village of Massissi.

“It’s a bad place because there’s war, trouble, people don’t like each other, they like to kill,” he says. “There’s always dead people, and blood.”

He lights up as he explains that he and his sister are now being cared for by a widow, Arlette Kabuo Malimewa, 45. She has three children of her own and also cares for a third foster child.

Agata sleeps in the living room, which has several posters of Jesus Christ lining the walls. Moise has his own room, where his two book bags hang from nails on the wooden planks.

Malimewa sells bed covers in bright pinks and whites that hang over her black lava rock gate, and makes about $5 a week.

“I love them, but it is difficult,” she says. “I want to keep them until my death … because who would they go to?”

ANUARITA MAHORO, 12

Anuarita Mahoro, 12, has been ostracized because she was born with a right hand problem that leaves her too weak to do hard labor.

She lived with her father until he was asked to chop wood for armed men who then killed him in 2014. Her mother lived with “the men of the forests,” as she refers to the fighters. They eventually killed her mother, too, and left.

Anuarita fled to her grandparents in Kiwanja. When her grandfather died, she was forced to leave her grandmother to find work to eat. Starving and sick, she was eventually taken in by a center for orphans.

Here, her right hand tucked between her legs and leaning on her left elbow, she apologizes.

“I have suffered so much so I might sound confused,” she says.

She hopes to return to her village and reclaim her grandmother’s land, showing those in the community her worth.

“After the death of my parents, the community discussed who would take this child. And no one was prepared to take me on as a parent. So since no one wanted me, when I grow up they better not come and ask me for any help,” she said, grinning widely, and then covering her face and laughing.

She would like one day to set up a center for orphans. And if she ever got the conversation she wants with the men who killed her parents, she solemnly reveals the one thought that won’t leave her mind.

“I would ask why they killed my father and my mother and didn’t kill me?”

DAMIEN MATATA BIZI, 22

Damien Matata Bizi looks down, his shoulders heavy, when he hesitantly recounts his past as an orphan who became a child soldier.

Many of the thousands of other former child soldiers in Congo over years made a similar choice, or had none at all. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide pushed fighters into Congo, and multiple rebel groups now fight over the mineral-rich region.

Matata Bizi became a rebel after his father, also an armed fighter, died. He was only 10 years old.

“I was angry when I learned of my father’s death. So I wanted to avenge my father, so I entered into the rebellion to fight,” he said. “My mother could never pay for school, and we could never find money to pay for food so I thought this was best.”

Matata Bizi says he was treated well, but others weren’t.

“The life that vulnerable children have is hard,” he says. “They don’t have education, they don’t have clothes, so it may be better to be in an armed group with the ability to find food and clothes than to be at a loss.”

When asked about having to kill people, his eyes narrow and he impatiently takes a deep breath, visibly angry.

“There’s a difference between the militants and child soldiers,” he says. “The adults have the occasion to reflect on what they’ve done. But for a child, we can only execute an order we are given. We don’t think of things, we do what we are ordered to do. “

Matata Bizi was found, rehabilitated by the United Nations and integrated into the army in 2009. He signed papers that say he is no longer a child soldier. He carries the dirtied, crumbling pages around in his shirt pocket. They brand him now.

He came to Goma in 2013. He was trained as a mechanic at the Don Bosco center in Goma but has no work. He says it’s easier to make more money and move up in rebel groups than in the army.

“War I know isn’t good, and neither is violence. It’s not good or normal,” he says. “But the armed groups exist because the country is badly organized. There’s no work. There’s no occupation for the young.”

On the Web

Children’s Voice

 

Alleged shooter of whooping cranes faces charge under Endangered Species Act

The case against the alleged shooter of two endangered Whooping Cranes in Texas last month has been re-filed under the federal Endangered Species Act, which increases the likelihood of larger penalties for the crime.

Environmental activists were concerned that Trey Frederick might be tried for a Class B misdemeanor under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

“If we hope to deter future shootings, perpetrators must be prosecuted vigorously. In all cases of Whooping Crane shootings, we demand justice for the birds that were killed, restitution for the enormous effort needed to bring them back, and personal penalties that match the seriousness of the crime,” said Rich Beilfuss, president & CEO of the International Crane Foundation.

In the 1940s, there were fewer than 20 Whooping Cranes left in the wild.

With conservation and reintroduction efforts, the crane numbers slowly increased to about 400 total in the wild.

The two cranes shot in Texas were members of the recently reintroduced Louisiana flock which numbers just about 30.

Over the past five years, more than 20 Whooping Cranes have been shot and killed in the United States.

“Whooping Cranes are an iconic species, central to our shared natural heritage. We are grateful to the thousands of citizens who have demanded justice in this case and thank federal authorities for continuing to pursue a just outcome. It’s our hope that by working together, we can prevent future tragedies like these shootings,” Beilfuss said. 

Backlash over a diocese’s post about deer-hunting nun

A Roman Catholic diocese in Pennsylvania has removed the Facebook photo of a nun with a 10-point buck she bagged after the posting drew criticism by anti-hunting and animal rights activists.

Sister John Paul Bauer killed the deer on Nov. 30, the first day of hunting season in the state.

The photo posted on the Erie Diocese’s Facebook page showed her, in her nun’s habit, at the back of a pickup holding her trophy deer by the antlers.

Initial comments were largely positive, Anne-Marie Welsh, spokeswoman for the Erie Diocese, in northwestern Pennsylvania, said Monday. But as the page neared 1.5 million views, animal rights activists began taking offense, she said.

“We recognize that social media needs to be a two-way conversation, but unfortunately, many of those who oppose hunting posted vulgar comments, using profanity and even an obscene photograph,” Welsh said. “After careful consideration, we decided to delete the post due to its inflammatory nature.”

In a story about the hunt on the diocese’s website, Bauer said she had just said the rosary up in a tree stand when deer appeared, and she killed the 200-pound buck.

“After I realized I got the deer, I thanked God,” she said.

She said she views hunting as a spiritual endeavor and also a form of conservation, a way to help ensure that the deer population remains at a level that can be sustained by the land.

She had the buck butchered for sausage and steaks and shared it with two families. She also took the 16-inch rack to a taxidermist for mounting.

Bauer teaches at Elk County Catholic High School in St. Marys, a city about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, in the heart of deer and elk hunting country in Pennsylvania. She learned to shoot while in the Navy.

“In St. Marys, this is what you do. You go hunting. Everybody goes hunting,” she told television station WSEE in Erie.

She has killed three bucks and a bear during her 15-year hunting career.

“When you’re up on a tree stand, you’re still, you’re quiet. You listen. You watch as the frosty ground just becomes alive,” Bauer told the TV station. “It’s like creation all over.”

Dog named ‘Trigger’ shoots hunter in the foot

A dog named Trigger shot his 25-year-old owner in the foot in a bizarre accident that had Indiana officials earlier this week reminding hunters to take safety lessons.

Allie Carter of Avilla was wounded during a waterfowl hunt at the Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area in northern Indiana, according to Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

She laid her 12-gauge shotgun on the ground while repositioning herself and her 11-year-old chocolate Labrador stepped on the gun, depressing the trigger, said Indiana Conservation Officer Jonathon Boyd.

The safety of the shotgun was not on, so it went off and Carter was shot in the left foot, Boyd said.

Carter, who had never completed a hunter education course, was hospitalized. She suffered non-life-threatening injuries from the bird shot pellets and was treated and released, Boyd said.

Indiana officials said that users of firearms should always point the muzzle in a safe direction and use the safety mechanism.

Boyd, who has been a conservation officer for seven years, remembered one other occasion when a dog shot its owner — a man hunting rabbits was shot after he leaned a gun against a tree, and his beagle stepped on it.

Cecil the lion’s killer to return to dentistry on Sept. 8

The Minnesota dentist whose killing of Cecil the lion fueled a global backlash emerged on Sept. 6 for an interview in which he disputed some accounts of the hunt, expressed agitation at the animosity directed at those close to him and said he would be back at work within days.

Walter Palmer, who has spent more than a month out of sight after becoming the target of protests and threats, intends to return to his suburban Minneapolis dental practice on Sept. 8. In an evening interview conducted jointly by The Associated Press and the Minneapolis Star Tribune that advisers said would be the only one granted, Palmer said again that he believes he acted legally and that he was stunned to find out his hunting party had killed one of Zimbabwe’s treasured animals.

“If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” Palmer said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

Cecil was a fixture in the vast Hwange National Park and had been fitted with a GPS collar as part of Oxford University lion research. Palmer said he shot the big cat with the black mane using an arrow from his compound bow outside the park’s borders but it didn’t die immediately. He disputed conservationist accounts that the wounded lion wandered for 40 hours and was finished off with a gun, saying it was tracked down the next day and killed with an arrow.

An avid sportsman, Palmer shut off several lines of inquiry about the hunt, including how much he paid for it or others he has undertaken. No videotaping or photographing of the interview was allowed. During the 25-minute interview, Palmer gazed intensely at his questioners, often fiddling with his hands and turning occasionally to an adviser, Joe Friedberg, to field questions about the fallout and his legal situation. 

Some high-level Zimbabwean officials have called for Palmer’s extradition, but no formal steps toward getting the dentist to return to Zimbabwe have been publicly disclosed. Friedberg, a Minneapolis attorney who said he is acting as an unpaid consultant to Palmer, said he has heard nothing from authorities about domestic or international investigations since early August.

Friedberg said he offered to have Palmer take questions from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities on the condition the session be recorded. He said he never heard back.

“I’m not Walter’s lawyer in this situation because Walter doesn’t need a lawyer in this situation,” said Friedberg, who said he knew Palmer through previous matters. “If some governmental agency or investigative unit would make a claim that he violated some law then we’d talk about it.”

Ben Petok, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Andy Luger, declined comment about conversations with Friedberg and referred questions to Fish and Wildlife. An agency spokesman didn’t immediately return a call and an email Sunday evening.

After Palmer was named in late July as the hunter who killed Cecil, his Bloomington clinic and Eden Prairie home became protest sites, and a vacation property he owns in Florida was vandalized. Palmer has been vilified across social media, with some posts suggesting violence against him. He described himself as “heartbroken” for causing disruptions for staff at his clinic, which was shuttered for weeks until reopening in late August without him on the premises. And he said the ordeal has been especially hard on his wife and adult daughter, who both felt threatened.

“I don’t understand that level of humanity to come after people not involved at all,” Palmer said.

As for himself, he said he feels safe enough to return to work — “My staff and my patients support me and they want me back” — but declined to say where he’s spent the last six weeks or describe security steps he has taken.

“I’ve been out of the public eye. That doesn’t mean I’m in hiding,” Palmer said. “I’ve been among people, family and friends. Location is really not that important.”

Palmer, who has several big-game kills to his name, reportedly paid thousands of dollars for the guided hunt but wouldn’t talk money.

Theo Bronkhorst, a professional hunter who helped Palmer, has been charged with “failure to prevent an illegal hunt.” Honest Ndlovu, whose property is near the park in western Zimbabwe, faces a charge of allowing the lion hunt to occur on his farm without proper authority. 

Asked whether he would return to Zimbabwe for future hunts, Palmer said, “I don’t know about the future.” He estimated he had been there four times and said, “Zimbabwe has been a wonderful country for me to hunt in, and I have always followed the laws.”

In addition to the Cecil furor, Palmer pleaded guilty in 2008 to making false statements to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about a black bear he fatally shot in western Wisconsin outside of the authorized hunting zone. He was given one year probation and fined nearly $3,000 as part of a plea agreement.

Cecil’s killing set off a fierce debate over trophy hunting in Africa. Zimbabwe tightened regulations for lion, elephant and leopard hunting after the incident, and three major U.S. airlines changed policies to ban shipment of the trophies.

Facebook deletes cheerleader’s photos of ‘big game’ hunt, she reposts them from Fox News montage

Facebook has deleted some big game trophy photos posted by a Texas Tech cheerleader, saying they violated its standards.

However, 19-year-old Kendall Jones later shared a Fox News Channel montage of the deleted photos of rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards killed or tranquilized.

Jones has received criticism and support online after posting the pictures of herself in Africa. Jones says on her public Facebook page that the hunts are legal.

A statement issued by Facebook says it removes “reported content that promotes poaching of endangered species, the sale of animals for organized fight or content that includes extreme acts of animal abuse.”

Jones subsequently shared the “Fox & Friends” collection and then posted photographs from the Fox program.

A Facebook spokesman declined to comment why the montage is permitted.

“We are glad that Facebook acted to remove some of Ms. Jones’ photos promoting the killing of rare and endangered species. Killing in the name of conservation is simply unacceptable,” said Nicole Paquette, vice president for wildlife protection at The Humane Society of the United States. “It does not benefit the species, it only provides profit to hunting safari companies and a thrill kill for the shooter. In a time where elephants and rhinos are being killed for their tusks and horns on a daily basis, Ms. Jones’ trophy kill of an elephant and other rare animals only adds to the threat to the survival of these iconic species.”