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DRC: UNICEF in a Child's World


Ann Veneman advocates for children around the world. She has traveled to over 60 countries in her four years as head of UNICEF to keep the plight of children in the forefront of international attention. Her recent experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) compels her to voice her concern and hope for children who face extraordinary odds of survival.

Ann Veneman © courtesty of UNICEF
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Attending to the Children

By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


As head of UNICEF, Ann Veneman has witnessed profound inspirations and horrific tragedies in lives of children around the world. Her travels for the United Nations Children’s Fund take her to every region on the planet to assess their needs. Veneman recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child with a special report documenting the current living conditions of children. The report highlighted the improvements and challenges children face everyday. While almost every country has ratified the Rights of the Child to push forward a collective will to protect the youngest generation, there continues to be needless and appalling conditions which contributed to the deaths of almost nine million children last year.


In 2008, four million children died from three single causes, diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia. While UNICEF has found less children dying directly from violence, the violence they do face has grown more pervasive and brutal. Veneman returned from a trip to the Haut-Uele province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in August with an acute awareness of the horrors facing children in the region. Of all the countries in the world, the DRC resonates a flash point between the lives of children and the world’s response to protect them. Of all the countries of the world, Veneman focused on the DRC in her statement recognizing the 20th anniversary of the Rights of the Child.


Veneman told how she met girls and boys who described sexual violence, kidnapping, pillaging, destruction of their homes, human trafficking and forced conscription into militia movements. She prefaced the achievements of the Rights of the Child anniversary with the need to do much more to protect children.


In an interview in early November, Veneman expressed a deep dismay of the ongoing violence throughout the eastern half of the DRC. “In Eastern Congo, it’s the kind of violence being put upon civilians,” she said. “It’s the rapes of women, many whom are children, and there’s now even raping of men. It’s the multiple rapes. It’s rape used as a weapon of war in the worst way. It’s leaving a huge amount of physical destruction.”


Veneman worries most about the affect of violence on the children. “The one thing I came away with from this trip, despite all the progress, is the children growing up experiencing so much violence of the worst kind,” she said. “It shapes their future. What kind of generation is being created from such violence?” The long-term affects of violence create greater uncertainty for the future. “Will they know how to be leaders when they grow up? What will their role be?”


Veneman’s questions are of concern for UNICEF and other humanitarian organizations working in the country. UNICEF helps train police and social workers to deal with the violence, but when it has permeated into the social fabric of region a comprehensive response is vital. “I think about what happens to the children,” said Veneman. “The ones who must watch their parents being killed. The rapes, the stealing, seeing parents shot. What does that do to the children?”


The impact of the brutality of the violence and rape in the region is not new to Veneman. She first visited the town of Dungu three years ago. The town is located in the Haut-Uele Province, which borders Sudan and Uganda. While the two Kivu provinces south of Haut-Uele have received greater attention, the violence has been expanding across a larger region. It is a daunting situation with an estimated one million IDPs in North Kivu alone. Over the last several years, an influx of internally-displaced people (IDPs) has emerged in Dungu.  Veneman chose the town because of its location and the affects the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the community.


The notorious LRA is an armed militia formed in 1987 in an active resistance against the Ugandan government. The LRA is led by Joseph Kony, who was charged with a host of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005. He remains at large in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to various media reports in the region. Two weeks ago, 34 of his members in the Haut-Uele province surrendered to the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (UPDF) troops who are in the DRC to combat the LRA.


Veneman is well aware of the consequences Kony and his LRA have caused. The world first learned of its atrocities in Uganda where LRA members terrorized communities by kidnapping the children. They forced the boys to become soldiers by killing their family members and the girls were repeatedly raped and used as sexual slaves. Uganda eventually pushed out most LRA, but their tactics created the new nightmares for civilians when the rebels escaped to neighboring countries.


“I know the affects of the LRA,” said Veneman. “I went to Uganda four years ago and the stories are similar from the LRA in Uganda as now in Dungu. The children are kidnapped, forced to walk huge distances, beaten or killed, raped and made to do horrible acts.” Veneman said the LRA received worldwide attention when it operated in Uganda, but that attention has died down, much to the demise of the civilian population in the DRC. “All that attention died down and no one was talking about it, yet Joseph Kony is still at large,” said Veneman. “So I decided to try to talk about it.”


The Lasting Affects of Violence


The first time Veneman visited the DRC, she traveled to the Haut-Uele Province to talk with women and children in a refugee camp. One young woman, barely in her teens, told her about her horrific experience of being raped. Veneman asked her what she wanted for herself in the future. The girl told her she wanted to be a nun.


Three years after that poignant meeting, Veneman would again be united with the young woman. This time, she ran to greet Veneman when she entered the camp in Dungu. “She recognized me and came running to hug me,” said Veneman. “We talked for a long time about many things. Then I asked her again, as if for the first time, what she wanted to be when she grew up. She again said a sister (nun).” Veneman said the brutal rape still affected the girl deeply. The girl’s desire to be a nun was the only way she saw to resolve the pain and stigma. “After three years, the experience of rape still affected her.”


Veneman listened to hundreds of women and children describe their situation and experiences. “It helps to understand what it is like.” She was overwhelmed with the stories of violence and despair. Veneman described one woman she met in the refugee camp. The woman had just arrived a week before Veneman’s visit. The woman told her of being forced out of her home by soldiers who threatened to burn her home. She was afraid of being shot or raped if she left her home. She and six of her children managed to escape before the flames engulfed her home. But one child did not make it out in time. She and the remaining children walked for miles with nothing but what they were wearing to the refugee camp.


There are an estimated 23,000 residents of Dungu who face an additional burden of hosting tens of thousands of IDPs. Though the UN and other humanitarian organizations try to meet the needs of both populations, the violence erupting in the region is decimating the once fertile fields that easily sustained the population. The residents of Dungu and nearby villages were fairly healthy before the violence changed their lives. Veneman, the former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture before taking the post at UNICEF in 2005, understands the impact of hunger on children and families.


Malnutrition rates have continued to rise since the LRA first entered the region. “You can see the direct impact of the conflict,” said Veneman. “The people can no longer produce their food. They can no longer work their fields for their basic subsistence.” She adds that the acts of the LRA alone did not cause the devastation of the communities in the region.


“The DRC is very complex,” she said. “The DRC is very big. The governance is weak. The amount of impunity is great. People commit such crimes and no one is prosecuted. There is no justice system that works. It is difficult when you see such problems, hundreds of problems.”


The government’s forces have also been countering the operations of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known as the FDLR. Its members include those who actively participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Veneman said the government’s attempt to incorporate rebel groups into its army is creating additional problems. The rebels, along with many members of the army, have resorted to stealing and ransacking villages as forms of payment in lieu of official payrolls. The civilians pay the price.


An Uncertain Future of Horror and Hope


One of the people Veneman met during her August visit to Dungu was a woman who had to choose who of her children would have the best chance of a future. “I met this woman who had to face the hardest decision of her life,” said Veneman. “She had to choose which of her nine children she would send to school. She could only afford one. Can you imagine being a parent and having to make a decision like that?”


Education is a fundamental mission of UNICEF. “UNICEF is all about education,” said Veneman. “We’ve been outspoken in working to eliminate school fees. When fees are eliminated, school enrollment increases.” Veneman said UNICEF also advocates for girls’ education, which she said is critical to alleviating poverty around the world.


Education is also one of the most important issues for women in the DRC. Veneman heard again and again how mothers wanted peace so their children could go to school. The children also voiced their need for education. “Education kept coming out as the primary need,” said Veneman. “It was very interesting that both the women and the children placed such a high need on education.”


Veneman recalls one incident during her trip to the DRC that illustrates both the horrors and hope for the children. She met a boy who was kidnapped by the LRA and severely beaten because he couldn’t keep up with the day-long forced treks of the rebels due to an infection in his foot. He was left to die in the bush. He survived for five days before he was found and brought to foster home in Dungu.


Veneman described one of his lasting injuries made it difficult for the boy to walk. “I asked him what he wanted most,” said Veneman. “He said he wanted to go back to school,” said Veneman. “He had been in school, which is a good thing, but because of his injuries he couldn’t walk very well.” Veneman was taken by the boy’s other wish for a bicycle. “He said he wanted a bicycle so he could ride to school,” she recalled. “I’ll never forget that.”


UNICEF helps fund programs which rehabilitate child soldiers like the boy Veneman met in Dungu. The children are found throughout the region and brought to the town. Veneman said that Dungu hosts one of the standout programs. Operated by COOPI, an Italian NGO, along with local partners, the program works to find foster homes for children and provide counseling and other psycho-social services. “In Dungu, there are actually women taking in another child,” said Veneman. “There are so many trying to help. To be part of this rehabilitation program is very heartening.”


The programs of UNICEF and the many NGOs who work in the DRC are redefining humanitarian work in regions with ongoing violence. Veneman said it is not only the civilians who suffer. “The NGOs are also affected,” she said. “They have had people robbed and even raped in some cases.” She said that there are NGO workers living n tents and sleeping on cots so they can be close in to perform their work. “They are real heroes living in these kinds of conditions.”


The continuing violence in the region is also redefining the future of many children. Not all of the child soldiers are forced into the various rebel groups. Some who see no other future and little hope for the present have voluntarily joined. These are the children that have witnessed violence for far too long and see it as the only way to survive.


Last December, the reality of the horrors of the ongoing violence erupted in the region. In four days during the Christmas Day season, rebels attacked several villages in and around Dungu. The LRA, though some members have denied responsibility, killed hundreds of people. Veneman still recalls hearing about the descriptions of the events of the massacres when men entered a church with machetes. They pulled children and women out of the churches, raped and killed the women and kidnapped the children.


The massacres sent shock waves throughout the region and complicated the response of the army against the LRA and the FDLR in the region. “The DRC, despite all the work, still needs a lot of focus,” said Veneman. “There are a lot of issues to be addressed.” For her part, Veneman will keep the focus of the DRC in public view. She sees her work with UNICEF as a way to help people in the DRC and around the world. “It’s been quite remarkable to truly understand and work in conflict with community-based approaches,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to listen and I’ve found that listening is most important. Veneman is hoping the plight of children around the world gains many more listeners.


December 10, 2009

© 2009, Foreign Interest

© 2009 Foreign Interest. All rights reserved.