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The Key is Hope

DR Congo, September 11, 2007

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Matthew De Galan for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Giselle's family has fled eastern Congo's violence on more than one occasion. Photo: Matthew De Galan for Mercy Corps

Like thousands of Congolese children, young Giselle's path to relative safety in Goma has been grueling. But, with your help, Mercy Corps is offering them much-needed support once they reach their destination.

She walked four hours with her mother and two siblings last Wednesday to escape eastern Congo's brutal violence. Her family first fled their farm last Monday when soldiers arrived, seeking shelter in the center of Sake, a battle-torn city. But early Wednesday, shells began exploding in the city, and the family ran for their lives.

"We ran out of the house as fast as we could," says 12-year-old Giselle, nervously playing with a key attached to a bracelet. "We haven't eaten for three days. Today we got water, thank God."

What worries Giselle most is her father, who is trapped behind the battle lines, unable to join them or even let them know if he is alive. Since arriving, she and her family built a small hut out of tree branches and banana leaves, perched on the rough gray-black volcanic rock that juts up everywhere in the area, making it difficult to walk and impossible to dig latrines or plant gardens.

On Thursday, the weather turned cool and damp, with massive thunderstorms and drenching rain that poured through the makeshift dwellings. With the rains came massive swarms of mosquitoes and gnats.

By Monday, thousands of families, including Giselle's, had received plastic sheeting and were draping it over the roofs of their huts - a small step forward from the misery of the first few days. Yellow jerry cans, filled with clean water, rested in front of homes. Blankets, cooking utensils and other items were making life a bit easier.

But for Giselle and the thousands of other children, recovery is a long way off. There are no schools, no activities, no health care. And even her primary chores - long walks to fetch water and wood - pose grave dangers. Sexual violence against women and girls is a horrific fact of life in eastern Congo, the legacy of years of warfare and the continued presence of at least five armed groups operating in the region.

"Last week we had to walk to the lake, an hour away," she says, adding that they travel in groups of 10 or more, for safety. "Now the water is right here and we feel much safer."

And the key on her bracelet, what is it for?

"It's the key to my house," she says.

Does she want to go back?

"Yes, but not until it's safe. Until then, we will stay here."