I never found Eduardo, but the distribution was exciting. Mercy Corps' first work in Congo. We helped AVSI, an Italian NGO, set up and distribute water to 2,500 families. It started off a bit rocky. The tanker truck was late, and then the hose connecting it to the three portable water taps (each with six spigots) was chock full of holes. Desperately, as hundreds of thirsty people waited in line, we wrapped the pipe with rubber strips, trying to stem the flow. You could feel hundreds of eyes on you, watching the water seep away into the lava rock. So close, so tantalizingly close. Soon enough, it was fixed, and a group of children — 4, 5, 6 years old — toddled into the area, which was taped off like a crime scene, with two entry points and two exit points. MC and AVSI staff were posted at each entry and each exit, and we had maybe two people at each tap to help the kids and elderly fill their jerry cans. You might think folks would be excited, but mostly they seemed worried, deadly serious. As if they might not get their full measure, as if their turn might not come. But it did, and soon enough about 400 people were coming through per hour, filling 10 or 20 liter containers. By the end of the day, we had distributed 40,000 liters, and no one was left in line.
The amazing thing is watching the kids — 4 year olds come in, wobble over the rocks, fill their containers and then, impossibly, hoist it up and walk home. Some loop a long scarf through the handle, tie it tight, and then sling the looped fabric over their head and hunch forward. They are masters at carrying things here. If there was an Olympics for transport, Congo would dominate. Some women balance the containers on their head. The kids who didn't have scarfs, usually the boys, simply hefted them in both hands, walking a few steps, setting it down, picking it back up and walking some more. With the really tiny kids, we'd help them carry it outside the perimeter, sometimes beyond, once or twice to the door of the dwelling.
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After a couple of hours things calmed down, so I pulled Christophe aside and proposed a tour around the camp. It was hot, the sun out in full force. I wanted to talk to people, ask them how they came here, what had happened up in Sake. We talked to a few families — pretty much the same story. Shells started dropping into the city from the hills above, and they all fled. Some on Monday, some waited a couple of more days.
It's a three-hour walk or so, and even Sunday the road was packed with new arrivals coming in. We talked to one woman who wouldn't give her name, her age, the number of children she had. Who can blame her? So we decided to try the kids. That's where I met Giselle, whose photo and story now grace the Mercy Corps website. She is 12.
She looks at you with no emotion, no expression, a face rigid with non-emotion. There is no fear in looking at you — she doesn't look down, or away. She looks right at you, with a quiet intelligence. But not a trace is revealed, no hint of mirth or a smile or mischief; no sadness or tears or remorse. Perfectly still and self-contained and controlled. But somehow the life has gone out, or lays repressed behind some wall of fear or pain or reticence. I am assuming too much, perhaps. The writer's mistake. Thinking you understand, when you don't. When you can't.
Here she is, a girl whose father is missing in the war, who was shelled and shot at, who can't walk to get water or wood without going with 10 others for fear of rape. And now she is here, living in a hut that the rain pours through each night, swarmed by mosquitoes, without food or water or latrines or school. Nothing, really, but her pale purple dress with big white flowers, and a bracelet with the key to her home back in Sake.