08/10/2017 10:58 EDT | Updated 08/10/2017 11:12 EDT

Crisis In Congo's Kasaï Region Has Destroyed Childhoods

Thousands of children are unaccompanied and defenceless, and some are deeply disturbed by the violence they have witnessed.

Tshinyama Primary School is one of four schools plundered during the conflict between Kamuina Nsapu movement rebels and the police in March 2017.

There is life before the crisis, and life since the crisis. A small spark ignited a wave of conflict. The Kasaï region has become a synonym for unbelievable atrocities and immeasurable violence.

Most people have probably never heard of the Kasaï and would probably struggle to locate it a map. But now militias, mystical attacks, mysterious rituals, magic sticks and mass graves have put an international spotlight on the region.

And after all this violence, we have 1.4 million people who've been displaced, who've had to leave their homes and flee for their lives. Everything has gone up in smoke: schools, health centres, and public buildings.

Tens of thousands of people, including many children, found themselves in the middle of a conflict that has nothing to do with them. Thousands of children are now orphans, unaccompanied or separated from their families. The children of the Kasaï region are the main victims of the crisis: they're on the front line of clashes, they are attacked, injured or killed and they no longer have access to education or healthcare. A child should remain a child but since the start of this crisis, there has been no normal childhood for children in Kasaï region.

Demobilized child soldiers from the militia of the traditional chief Kamuina Nsapu are studying in a Transit and Orientation Centre run by the local NGO, supported by the UNICEF, in Kananga, capital of the Western Kasai province.

For me personally, there is also a life before the crisis and a life since. Violence in the region has had a big impact on my work and on my family. I never thought that we would go from stability to violence so suddenly. It feels like overnight we went from a development program to full-blown crisis and we've had to adapt quickly.

You have to find new ways of working in a crisis. I knew that I needed to play an important role in the coordination as a child protection officer. Every moment of every day, children are our priority.

In a crisis situation, information is really essential. Forums, meetings with partners and conference calls have become vital parts of my day. I quickly established a network to get daily alerts from areas affected by the conflict. Verification, triangulation and validation, every day.

Once information has been validated, it is shared with all our colleagues in the Kananga office and also in Kinshasa. The information that I validated, the data that is part of a child's story, I help get that information out to the world so people know what is going on here.

UNICEF Gabriel Vockel
Broken bridges, muddy roads and a mobile population of displaced people in need; these are just some of the challenges that UNICEF and its partners face in responding to the Kasai crisis. A UNICEF vehicle fords a stream next to the rusted remains of a bridge as families collect water for their daily needs.

This documentation has brought the Kasaï crisis to the attention of the world, helping people understand what's happening here. Because of this outpouring of global support, humanitarian actors have mobilized and children are getting the help they need. The Kasaï region is attracting the attention of the world but accurate information is the key. It is impossible to remain indifferent once you know what is happening here.

The crisis follows me everywhere. I feel like I no longer have any time for myself. My professional and private lives have become one singular mission: to protect as many children as possible. The acts of violence that I hear about, they don't stay at the office, they come home with me in my thoughts and in my nightmares. When I get home, family members, neighbours and friends bombard me with questions about the security situation, the clashes and the latest news.

My telephone rings day and night, without letting up. How can I not think about the stories coming from colleagues on the ground, or the interviews with victims of the conflict? The killings, the kidnappings, the rapes and the violence are all in my head. Little by little, I am beginning to realize that I am living with the crisis, that the crisis is inside me.

These children have seen so much horror and I worry about how we can help them recover.

My family aren't immune to this either, so we do what we can to cope or we seek refuge in prayer. We all pray for this crisis to be over as soon as possible. My family and I encourage everyone to stay positive, to help each other and not to sink into despair.

Too many children are being used in militias. Adults deceived them into thinking they were invincible and promised them a better future. Thousands of children are unaccompanied and defenceless, and some are deeply disturbed by the violence they have witnessed. Children tell us they have been tortured and many girls say they were raped repeatedly. Others tell of being present during the rape of their mothers and sisters, or how they had to witness the murder of their relatives or loved ones. These children have seen so much horror and I worry about how we can help them recover.

We must help children to erase these memories so that they can live a better future. We need to act quickly because a whole generation is under threat. Let's protect our children in the Kasaï region, and defend and uphold their right to a childhood.

Alphonse Kalonji Tshikala is a child protection officer in the Kasaï region in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He helps coordinate the response for children who've been exposed to extreme violence in conflict.

More than one million people have been forced from their homes by waves of violent conflict in the Greater Kasaï region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and UNICEF is gravely concerned for their welfare. Help UNICEF respond.

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