Eliya's Nightmare

Congo wounded war orphan in nightmarish limbo

Nov. 15, 2008


RUTSHURU, Congo (AP) _ Nobody knows what to do with him now.

The small child with a bullet-shattered wrist was crying alone in a house full of corpses when he was found last week by a stranger fleeing a gunbattle between rebels and pro-government militias in eastern Congo.

The man carried the boy from the village of Kiwanja to a tiny hospital several miles away and the two- or three-year-old infant spent the night screaming and his days silent, medical staff said.

One week later, the boy's name is about all they know.

"He finally opened up and told them, 'My name is Eliya,'" said Francois Bahuga, a nurse at the main hospital in Rutshuru, a small town perched amid chilly terraced hills in the heart of territory newly overrun by rebels.

Eliya now talks timidly to some to other children. "But he still won't talk to us," Bahuga said. "He is clearly traumatized. He's having nightmares."

The tragic story is just one of many being told here after Congo's recent explosion of fighting began in August, displacing 250,000 people. The violence has shattered hopes the nation's first-ever democratic election in 2006 would usher in a peaceful era.

That vote was the culmination of a deal that had finally unified Congo after a 1998-2002 war ripped it apart, leaving huge chunks of the vast central African nation under the control of rival rebel groups and foreign armies.

Today, fighters loyal to a new rebel leader, Laurent Nkunda, again control large swaths of the east. And after a lightening advance in late October across the green valleys of North Kivu province, Nkunda's territory has expanded again. Rebels are now collecting road taxes, replacing town officials with their own and forcibly recruiting young men and children into their ranks, aid workers say.

Nkunda took up arms in 2004 and claims he is fighting to protect minority ethnic Tutsis from Rwandan Hutu rebels who fled here after Rwanda's 1994 genocide of more than 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis. In Congo, the two ethnic groups live among hundreds of others.

The government sees Nkunda as a puppet of neighboring Rwanda, which invaded twice in the 1990s to rout the Hutu militias but plundered the area instead, according to critics.

Nkunda's fiefdom is in a stunningly beautiful province shadowed by mist-shrouded volcanoes. But the beauty belies the poverty in the area where most people live hand to mouth. They are unable to farm their fields _ rich volcanic soil ripe with potatoes, beans, corn and bananas _ because they are afraid of armed groups who roam through them.

The few police and army around offer little protection; like the warring militias and rebels who roam the hills, security forces are accused of raping and pillaging.

In such a lawless place, Eliya's future would have been grim by any measure. Now, his parents are almost certainly dead, there are no orphanages to take him in, and more than 1 million adults in the province of 6 million are living as refugees, struggling to feed themselves and their own children.

Bahuga said Eliya was the first war orphan he had seen at Rutshuru hospital.

Today, there are four, and two others who lost one parent.

"Caring for orphans, that's something new for us," Bahuga said. "The conflict is getting more violent by the day."

Congo ought to be rich, but its abundant supply of diamonds, gold, copper, tin and rubber, have bred corruption and left many fighting instead.

Congo's story today can be told on the main road running north of the government-held provincial capital, Goma. Tiny jagged islands of tarmac are all that remain of a route that long ago was paved.

Traveling north from the provincial capital, the track winds past Kibati, where 60,000 people who fled the fighting in late October are huddled under a sea of smoky tents beside the slopes of Nyiragongo, an active volcano.

The road passes blue-helmeted peacekeepers standing atop armored personnel carriers, then a final army checkpoint and 800 yards of empty no-mans land.

Near the front line, whole villages are abandoned. Rebels, wearing olive green uniforms nearly identical to those of government troops on the other side, have moved into empty black wood homes, rocket launchers and automatic weapons pointing at the road. Two carried a crate of Primus beer.

Further into rebel territory, is an abandoned refugee camp at Kibumba where tens of thousands had sought refuge after similar skirmishes last year and fled when fighting drew near two weeks ago.

By the roads, spent tank shells are scattered among ripped black boots, leftovers from the army's retreat. A smashed red and white cell-phone tower lies twisted onto itself, knocked down by a bomb blast. Handfuls of women and children walk barefoot, lugging giant wads of beanstalks on their backs.

On Thursday at Rutshuru hospital, Eliya slept on an iron bed in the corner of a room packed with gunshot victims.

When he woke on his thin mattress, a young man picked him up and held him. The French charity Doctors Without Borders is paying the 34-year-old a few dollars a day to care for and feed him.

Wrapped in a purple cloth, Eliya's bulky lips sagged forlornly. His liquid brown eyes were both despondent and blank. He rested his heavily bandaged left wrist on a cushion.

And he did not say a word.

Bahuga, the nurse, said little was known about the man who brought Eliya in on Nov. 6. But the hospital will send a team to Kiwanja to find out if anybody knows who the boy is, or if he has any living relatives.

"It will be difficult, maybe impossible, to find anyone to take him," Bahuga said. "Most people are preoccupied trying to survive. Don't ask me what we are going to do."

Copyright 2008 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.