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Congo's Hidden Displaced

DR Congo, January 27, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ten-year-old Laurene sits in the church sanctuary which, along with 500 others, she calls home. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

Her name is Laurene. She lives in a church. She is 10 years old.

Three months ago — as CNDP rebel forces surged south toward Goma — Laurene fled with her family from the city of Rutshuru. It took them four days to reach Kibati Camp, which sprawls across the northern boundary of Goma's city limits. But, before they'd had the chance to settle in, the camp was caught in the crossfire between rebel forces and government troops.

They were forced to run for their lives, and struggled across nearly nine miles of jagged lava rock to a church in Goma's rough-and-tumble outskirts. There they found some measure of security, alongside almost 100 other families who'd fled last October's ferocious fighting.

Laurene and her family squeeze into the church at night to sleep. They must awaken and go outdoors during the day — even if it's pouring down rain.

She is among thousands of children who have taken refuge in urban Goma's gritty neighborhoods rather than risk dangers in the camps. They're being housed in churches, schools, community centers and other public buildings — but they're neither getting the food nor most of the other assistance that those in the camps are receiving.

Mercy Corps has stepped up to fill the void and meet at least three of their most critical needs: clean water, sanitation and hygiene. We are supplying 80,000 liters of water per day to those living in the church — plenty for everyone to drink, cook, bathe and wash their clothes. We are building latrines. And our teams have provided soap and other cleaning supplies, as well as helping displaced families learn about proper hygiene.

But it's not easy to explain why we didn't bring food today. After all, it's been almost two months since another humanitarian organization supplied these families with rice, beans and flour. Mercy Corps has its area of responsibility in this area — provision of clean water, hygiene items and sanitation facilities — but those are operational issues that don't mean much to a child who is hungry.

So Laurene sits quietly on a church pew, in the place she now calls home, and waits for something to eat.