Jewish World Watch is actively working to develop a partnership with BVES, the organization described below. If you are interested in supporting JWW and BVES's work in eastern Congo, please contact Naama Haviv at Naama@jww.org or 818-501-1836.
Names of children referenced below have been changed for security.
Dr. Murhabazi Namegabe is one of the many heroes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He does not stand idly by. Singly handedly, he is "one of the cowboys of Congo" as he rescues victimized children in this haunting, ugly war. His organization, BVES, houses hundreds of children at two facilities, one for young women and children and one for recently liberated male child soldiers. Dr. Namegabe's mission is to reunite these beautiful children with their families.
We visited both facilities today, and it was disturbing and heart-wrenching. I have never seen such base poverty and will never forget the first-hand testimony of combat, kidnapping, and loss of innocence.
Our second site visit with Dr. Namegabe is home to 176 recently liberated boy soldiers redeemed from combat. As we enter a secure gate and the main courtyard, we watch as some of the boys carry purchased water bucket-by-bucket from large drums from the back of a truck. This process is done many times during a week. With basically no plumbing and inadequate toilet and bathing facilities on the premises, there is a strong stench of urine.
All the young boys notice that three female visitors have arrived, and they follow us inquisitively as we take a quick tour of the facility. There are primitive, cramped dormitory style rooms, a basic school room, and a crude kitchen and eating area. I am struck by a few of the young boys playing checkers in a corner using bottle caps as markers. This is the only game or book we have seen at either facility except for a worn-out chalk board.
Finally, Dr. Namegabe introduces us, and spontaneously everyone starts clapping rhythmically to acknowledge our welcome. He describes our visit to the children, and then asks if any of the boys would be willing to tell their story of capture, time in the militia and their recent release. I am surprised that nearly every boy raises a hand. In a large meeting area in the main house, we listen intently to numerous testimonies, the most moving from a boy named Emmanuel.
Using witchcraft and wizardry, Emmanuel, at the age of sevem, was drugged and abducted while on school vacation by Mai Mai militia members. He was given a uniform, boots, and an AK47. Daily for the past 8 years, he was made to kill villagers; and daily he thought of his family, wanting to be home with his brothers and sisters. He describes that he knew the killings were wrong.
Dr. Namegabe interjects about how he was able to negotiate Emmanuel's release at a militia demobilization session. Emmanuel integrated into his new living situation quite slowly. Emmanuel told of his inability to speak for weeks and how difficult it was to relate to the other boys. In not knowing what to expect from his new surroundings, he was truly traumatized once again.
With Dr. Namegabe's help, Emmanuel is now able to openly talk about his disturbing past. He spoke of his happiness to be at this facility. While I am touched by his honesty and willingness to share his story, however, there is little affect in his demeanor. He is severely damaged. I am concerned not only about the long term effects of his forced conscription, but whether after the 90-day process of reunification and documentation, he will ever be reunited with his family in his village of Kabamba, just north of Bukavu. His last words to us, "I am one of the lucky ones to be taken by [Dr. Namegabe], and please help me get back home again."
As Dr. Namegabe says good-bye to us at the end of our stay, he is hopeful with much work to forge a partnership between Jewish World Watch and his organization. Through our translator, "Thank you for coming and remembering us." I fought back tears as I waved goodbye to the children at both shelters.
I return to my room at The Orchid Hotel, behind a secure barbed-wire metal gate overlooking picturesque Lake Kivu. My hotel room is newly appointed with bamboo floors and a freshly made bed. I slip into a hot bath and realize that I, too, have forever lost my innocence.