Democratic Republic of Congo

Violence in DRC Has Forced Hundreds of Students Out of School. They May Never Return.

A land conflict in Kisangani has shuttered schools and forced thousands to flee their homes. For children, the effects could last a lifetime.

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Violence in DRC Has Forced Hundreds of Students Out of School. They May Never Return.

Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

People at a displaced persons camp in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. A land conflict between the Lengola and Mbole communities has forced thousands to abandon their homes.

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KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — On a scorching morning in Lubunga, a semi-urban commune on the left bank of the Congo River, Carine Masala was keenly following a history lesson. Suddenly screams pierced the air, and people ran across the school compound.

Carine saw her mother running toward the classroom, shouting that they had to leave immediately. Without knowing what was happening, Carine followed her mother, and the two ran for their lives.

That was in May 2023. Since then, Carine, like hundreds of other students at Lubunga’s 71 schools, hasn’t been back to class because of a conflict that broke out between the Mbole and Lengola communities last year.

Like many others fleeing the violence, Carine’s family ended up at a camp for internally displaced persons, within the mayor’s office building in Kisangani. It is one of the city’s many temporary shelters. “My parents, brothers and I have been living in this administration building. My siblings and I haven’t been able to go to school since we arrived,” says Carine, 13, who was in her first year of secondary school when the violence broke out.

The effects on children are already evident. A number of those living in camps have turned to hawking to earn money. Others, orphaned by the conflict and with no hope of returning to school, have turned to begging or seeking work in makeshift restaurants, where they are assigned jobs like fetching water or cleaning dishes. Kandolo School Principal Mathieu Kibali says the future of displaced students remains uncertain. He says many will need to repeat their classes for lack of school documents like report cards, which record student performance.

Jackson Bosokondo, professor of educational psychology at the University of Kisangani, says the most significant consequences are psychological and could lead to a reluctance to learn. “The children’s mental health is affected,” he says. “They suffer from depression, attention deficit disorder.”

A May 2023 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that the violence unfolded in three waves between February and May last year. It was sparked by a disagreement between the two communities over a piece of land on the outskirts of Lubunga district. In February 2023, the provincial government and a palm oil production company signed an agreement allowing the latter to occupy a 4,000-hectare (15-square-mile) piece of land for five years. Unhappy with this development, members of the Mbole community accused the Lengola of signing away land that didn’t belong to them.

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Zita Amwanga, GPJ DRC

Carine Masala, 13, poses for a portrait at a displaced persons camp in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. Carine has been unable to attend school for the past year after a conflict between the Mbole and Lengola communities displaced her family.

Héritier Isomela, president of Sauti ya Lubunga, a civil society group, estimates that about 500 were killed in the conflict as of May 2023. Recent OCHA data shows that this number rose to over 740 by May this year. According to a May 2023 OCHA report, the conflict has displaced about 92,400 people.

Jupson Popolipo, mayor of the Kisangani commune, welcomed displaced persons to the temporary camp in the building housing his office. He put the number of school-aged children living in the camp last year at over 300. That number had risen to over 500 by February this year.

Héritier Okita, an 11-year-old boy living at the camp, says his mother was killed in the conflict. Neighbors brought Héritier, who was in the fifth year of primary school, to the camp last year. He now sells water in the streets to provide for his two younger brothers, who are 6 and 3. Héritier dreams of going back to school and hopes for a miracle.

“I have become homeless and parentless. My future is hypothetical. I don’t know how to return to school,” he says.

Worried that their children are missing out, parents of children living in the camp want the provincial government to help get them back to school.

The school year began on Sept. 4, 2023, after summer holidays in July and August, but many children, like Carine, who were displaced by the conflict were unable to complete the previous school year. At the end of the academic year this month, schools will close again, with no sign on when children displaced by the violence will be able to resume their studies.

Maurice Kebula, who fled the conflict, worries about his son, Caleb Kasongo, who is in his second year of secondary school. Students have to pass a national exam at this level to pursue upper-secondary education. Caleb couldn’t take the test.

“I lost everything after running away, so I can’t afford to pay for his test fees,” Kebula says.

“I have become homeless and parentless. My future is hypothetical. I don’t know how to return to school.”

Georges Monde, the minister of primary, secondary and technical education in Tshopo province, says the provincial government took action to allow some students to take their tests. For instance, the government covered fees for some of the final year students to sit their exams.

Assani Lubumba, who was in his final year of secondary school, couldn’t finish the 2022-2023 school year.

“I’m in my final year, and I had to leave all my class notes behind. I have to start again. My parents are out of work. They can’t afford it,” says Assani, who had to flee Kandolo School and now lives at the displaced persons camp.

Bosokondo says students who couldn’t finish the year must go back to their studies.

He says that while there are no academic consequences for those who repeat classes, the level of trauma children have experienced will leave a mark.

“This is why I am asking NGOs and other organizations that fight for children’s rights to create a support program to help these children who have experienced violence, or else these events will have an impact on their future,” Bosokondo says.

Carine remembers life before the violence broke out. She lived with her parents and four brothers in Osio district, within the Lubunga commune. Her father was a farmer, while her mother sold produce from the family’s field. Life was good, and her parents could afford all the children’s school fees.

But the future is now uncertain, and Carine isn’t holding out hope. She worries about achieving her goal to study nursing. Given the time already lost and her parents’ inability to pay her fees, Carine isn’t sure whether she’ll be able to finish secondary school.

“I need to go back to school, but it’s impossible,” she says. “There is no school here at the camp, and my parents can’t help me. The situation is getting more and more difficult.”

Zita Amwanga is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Democratic Republic of Congo.


Emeline Berg, GPJ, translated this article from French.