Their villages have been burnt, their friends and neighbours killed and their children kidnapped from schools.
Tens of thousands of people are now on the move in northern Congo, trying to stay one step ahead of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels who are hacking their way across the countryside, going from village to village and from home to home.
“They don’t kill with guns, they kill with axes and machetes and knives,” says Bishop Richard Domba Madi from Dungu Doruma diocese.
Those who have fled belong to Bishop Domba Madi’s diocese. The violence is pushing people from its northern reaches, near the Sudan border, deeper south where so far there are no rebels.
They seek safety in villages in unaffected parts of the diocese, hoping people will take them into their homes. But the stories told by those who have fled the atrocities committed by the rebels strike fear into many people’s hearts and make them in turn leave their homes to find safety even further south.
Caritas has been assessing how many people need help in the area. It has been providing food to the most vulnerable people and providing moral support to people who have lost their homes and suddenly found themselves with nothing.
It launched an emergency appeal (EA 33) for US$440,000 in mid-October to provide 4000 families who had fled their homes with clothes, blankets, cooking utensils and hygiene items. Bishop Domba Madi is worried all the same.
“These people need food, health and education,” he says. “And what about the children? What are they going to do? How will they receive schooling?”
But there is a much darker side to the instability and displacement facing the children of northern Congo.
The LRA often kidnaps children from their families and schools and inducts them into their ranks. They become child soldiers who are forced to kill and maim. Sometimes the victims are their own parents.
Bishop Domba Madi says that no one and nothing is safe while the rebels are in his diocese.
“The LRA attacked a parish near the border, burned the presbytery and beat up the missionary priests there. They had to flee to Sudan and then Uganda. Now they have fled to the safety of Italy because they’re Italian,” he says.
He says that the Church is doing what it can to help those uprooted by the violence but resources are limited.
But the Church too is at the mercy of the LRA’s brutality and the instability created as a result.
“I am very concerned to see missionaries and villagers leave their lives behind and become “displaced”. The people who have left their homes are living in atrocious difficulties and they are being killed for no reason,” says Bishop Domba Madi.