Many Congolese families have lost their homes in the fighting. Others don't even feel safe sleeping in their homes at night. These conditions have led many people to hide in fields and on plantations, rarely spending two nights in the same location. (Photo: Sebastian Bolesch/Das Fotoarchiv)
"I left the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1996 when the war broke out, because life became unbearable & People were murdered like flies for no reason," says an emotion-filled Mulanda Juma, a former Compassion Congo-sponsored child who currently lives in South Africa.
The people of the DRC (formerly Zaire) face considerable challenges even during times of relative peace. But as Mulanda's story reflects, their world has been turned upside down by the bloody civil war afflicting the impoverished nation in recent years. Thousands of Congolese people continue to live with the turmoil of this conflict.
Compassion has ministered in eastern Congo since 1980. But due to the ongoing conflicts and dangerous conditions in recent years, Compassion made the heartrending decision to end its 22-year ministry in Congo in December 2002.
Stories from the front lines
"When I first left the country in November 1996, I fled to Zambia," continues Mulanda. "I heard that things were back to normal at home in 1998 & (so) I went back to my village (of Makobola) in Congo.
"Two months later, the situation became worse than before. The big massacre took place in our village. & The whole village was totally destroyed. Over 700 innocent civilians lost their lives, including my young brother Amisi Juma. & Ms. Alumbe Abinawisho, who used to be in Compassion's program in 1980s, was also killed. In fact, she and her baby were burned in their house.
"Praise the Lord, I & escaped the massacre by hiding in the bush at the shore of the Lake Tanganyika. My parents and a few other villagers also managed to escape the killings," he concludes.
Writing from Bunia, a town several hours to the north of Mulanda's village, DRC Country Director Kpadyu Boko Thebi sent e-mails that further illustrate the tenuous circumstances in which Compassion Congo struggled to operate:
November 7, 2000: Yesterday, the DRC did not operate because of some gun shootings the whole day. & Despite all this, some staff members have shown up to work on urgent issues.
January 17, 2001: Fear is now paralyzing all activities. & Nowadays (many people) rarely sleep in their houses, fearing attacks at night. Some of our staff are in this same condition.
Staff and sponsored children showed one another incredible support as they mourned the deaths of family and friends. One of the most difficult blows came in 2001 when 14 sponsored children were killed.
Reaching the end of "a bit more time"
In such an unstable environment, it was rarely safe for anyone to travel. Schools closed, stores and businesses closed. During such times, Compassion projects suspended activities as well. But each time, everyone held out hope that they would reopen their doors.
Then, in December 2002, DRC sponsors received a disheartening letter from Africa Area Director Mulatu Belachew: "After much prayer & Compassion's Executive Leadership has decided to close our child development program in the Congo -- effective immediately."
The letter painted a picture of the obstacles Compassion DRC had faced. Fewer than half the children who fled were successfully located. Even when projects were able to open their doors, fewer and fewer children attended. "While our heart's desire is to 'hold on,'" Mulatu's letter continued, " & the Congo's conflict appears no closer to ending than when it began."
Morompi Ole-Ronkei, Compassion's Associate Director of Program in Africa, offers further insight into the difficult decision to close Compassion Congo. "Anytime anyone mentioned that we might need to leave, we said, 'Please, give us a bit more time.' But we finally reached a point where we knew the line 'a bit more time' was almost becoming cliché® & We knew we finally had to say, 'Let's stop now.'"
Raising up the children
"What is success?" Ole-Ronkei asks. "How do we measure success?" Kenyan-born Ole-Ronkei has enthusiastically served Compassion Africa for the past five years. During his tenure, he has been a witness to the ministry's "successes" in that region of the world. And when he talks about Compassion's work and ultimate closing in the DRC, he speaks with great passion.
Though disappointed that the DRC ministry ended, Ole-Ronkei firmly believes Compassion has had a positive, lasting effect on the country. "We have left there with so much reluctance. But through our partnering with the Church, we were able to raise up children who can move on and then come back into their communities as leaders who are able to contribute and absolutely change the Congo."
Ole-Ronkei leans forward and his eyes are intense as he continues. "I will put it in as clear language as I can. Compassion in Congo has been a success, not a failure."
Go to Part 2 of the Congo story.