On International Children’s Day, Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child UK asks why Gaza is in the media spotlight, but Goma isn't.
Today, International Children’s Day, Congolese children in the border town of Goma will be having a day off school. In fact they may not be seeing their teachers for quite some time. Last night, as the children hid in their houses, government and rebel forces fought street to street, roundabout by roundabout, in a struggle to control the town which sits right on the Rwandan border. Tanks, mortars, army and rebel soldiers stand between the children and their classrooms, some of which may no longer be standing after sustained fighting between opposing forces.
Education is an early casualty of armed conflict. The war in Eastern Congo is the main reason why over 1 million Congolese children are not going to school. That’s one million children who will not be able to read or write and who will struggle to find themselves a positive role to play in Congo’s future. Not that this means they will remain idle. Uneducated girls are readily forced into early marriage or other forms of sexual exploitation. They will work desperately hard all their lives to stay just one step ahead of starvation. Illiterate boys are vulnerable to recruitment, forced or voluntary, by militia groups.
Fighting in Goma, with a similar sized population to the whole of the Gaza strip, sows the seeds for the next round of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and ensures that there will be a generation of traumatised young people with few options, available to fill the ranks of whatever revolutionary movement offers them food and adventure. We see the cycle of conflict and trauma playing out in Gaza today also. Each rocket or aerial attack leads to a new generation of recruits to a conflict that will feed on itself if left unchecked.
The difference between these two conflicts is the amount of attention they receive. The world is more aware of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and quicker to take action to avert disaster. In the past 24 hours the UN Security Council has met twice to agree how to bring an end to the fighting in Gaza. They have paid nothing like this much attention to Goma. Whilst Ban Ki Moon flies to Egypt to build a platform for peace in Gaza, the UN peacekeeping force in Goma looks like a futile gesture, abandoned by diplomatic neglect and unsure what it is supposed to be doing.
The international community needs to take quick action to reduce the violence in and around Goma. This conflict has just as much potential as Gaza to draw in neighbouring countries in an escalation of violence which could kill millions of people. Rwanda briefly sent troops into the Congo yesterday in response to shelling over its border. The last time the international community failed to stop conflict in the Congo, the result was a war which took more than six million lives and involved the armed forces of six Central African nations. This was less than ten years ago.
The UN Secretary General, the Security Council, and the Regional countries who all understand the dangers involved in D.R. Congo, need to come together as soon as possible to chart a route to peace in Goma. Congolese children who are stuck out of school are in need of some strong international leadership.