“With what we have, this is what we offer to all of them.”
These are the moving words of the Rev Bisoke Balikenga, whose small centre for peace in eastern DRC is providing training for hundreds of women and clean water for 20,000 displaced families.
Bisoke’s home town of Bunia is currently home to a hundred thousand people who been displaced by ongoing fighting between militias, government troops and foreign-backed armed groups.
“In the villages people are killing the human beings for nothing,” Bisoke says.
Local people blame the current outbreaks of violence on politicians trying to disrupt the upcoming elections scheduled for 23 December.
Bisoke, a longstanding local partner of Church Mission Society, talked to us at a gathering of local leaders in Nairobi at the end of October. The violence disrupted his own journey to the conference: “On my way from my town to the border of Uganda we found fighting between the militias and rebels. We had to stop for five hours.
“Now, the situation is not good. Maybe – we hope – after the election, then we will have peace.”
In response to the ongoing crisis, Bisoke and his colleagues in the Anglican Church of Congo are providing training and counselling, especially for traumatised women and children, as well as for youth workers in the displaced people’s camp in Bunia.
Even the simple provision of clean water ensures women are safer.
“Women used to go and get water seven kilometres, 10 kilometres. On the way they were having much problems, for example raping them, beating them, stealing some of the things from them. Now when we have water in our centre – then it is really helping the women for not being raped on the way.
“Now we have more than 20,000 families who are coming to get water there.”
Lifting up the position and dignity of women is seen as key at the centre for peace which Bisoke started. They provide tailoring training as a way for traumatised women, who are often victims of rape as a weapon of war, to have a livelihood.
“So far we have trained about 300 who have gone but now we still have more than 400 who we are training there.”
Even with these signs of hope, life remains fragile. Bisoke was sad to report the recent death of one pregnant woman. Undernourished and needing an operation, the hospital had no blood for a transfusion and there was no money for transport to a bigger hospital elsewhere.
But setbacks like this do not stop the tireless – but surely exhausting – work of Bisoke and his team, which continues weekly within the displaced people’s camp as well as at the peace centre.
“We have a programme within the camp. The youth workers – we are training some of them also there. We have more than 150 ladies who had a serious problem, they were really traumatised. Every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Friday, we pray with them, we try to counsel them. Some of them you are trying to take to hospital, ask some of the doctors to treat them but it is not easy because we are very limited – because they are many. They are like our sisters but we are not really able to help all of them.”
Ituri province, where Bisoke is based, is also threatened by the Ebola outbreak which has killed more than 200 in neighbouring North Kivu.
The World Health Organisation is hopeful that the outbreak can be contained. However, there remains a high risk of Ebola spreading to neighbouring provinces such as Ituri.
North Kivu is also the province worst affected by violence, underlined this week when an armed group killed one Tanzanian and six Malawian UN peacekeepers.
Despite the surrounding fighting, killing, disease and resulting trauma, Bisoke remains a calm and hopeful presence.
His reasons for hope lie in the transformation of the church and increased connections across Africa. More youth workers are being well trained in neighbouring countries and more women are being set free to go and study. Bisoke hopes they will come back to Congo and make a vital contribution to the future of the country.
“I know after maybe five years, 10 years, Congo will be the best country.
“Our church used to be the old people; now it’s the young people. The young people love to come to church – even children who are seven, 10 years [old]. Now imagine up to five years [ahead]: those ones, they’ll make a lot of changes.
“By all the things we are doing we like them to have Jesus, in order they can be a Christian. Then they can really be a tool of bringing peace in Congo.”
The Rev Bisoke Balikenga is provincial youth coordinator of the Anglican Church of Congo. He is Church Mission Society’s longest-serving local partner in Africa, supported by our Global Mission through Local Leaders initiative.