A beautiful country where people survive
Despite wars, looting, disease and accidents I am still in Congo
On 3 June 1991, for the second time, I arrived in Kinshasa, the capital of this immense country.
I am happy to be here, I now feel like a Congolese. I lived my missionary life on the outskirts of the capital of Congo (more than 17 million inhabitants), then near the border with Sudan, then in Isiro where I am still now.
Congo (80 times the colonial country Belgium and almost 7 times Italy) is a wonderful country like an earthly paradise where you find everything. The people are welcoming and good.
Since 1991 I have seen a continuous degradation of the country
True, the various governments have built a few schools, roads, hospitals thanks mainly to the massive and interested presence of Chinese companies and international aid, but the standard of living is still a sign of continuous misery.
More than half of the 100 million inhabitants live in a state of absolute poverty with a per capita GDP of about 450 dollars (one of the lowest in the world) and an average income of 1 dollar a day or little more.
Here people starve, diseases such as malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis, measles, anaemia, cholera, leprosy, typhoid fever, yellow fever… are commonplace.
The Congolese health system is very fragile, there is no free public health service organised by the state, every family pays for medical treatment and hospitalisation. Various politicians and administrators pocket the money from the WHO or other solidarity bodies instead of using the funds to benefit the health facilities for which they were intended.
There is always the Catholic and Protestant Church to thank, which are present with various health facilities such as hospitals, health centres, nutrition centres, and clinics. Scattered throughout the country, they welcome the sick with appropriate medical care at prices everyone can afford. When the sick person is poor or abandoned by his family, he is treated free of charge.
We live in an immense country, brimming with natural and mineral riches
The resources are many: gold, cobalt, nickel, copper, diamonds, coltan, oil, precious timber and fertile land for agriculture. Because of its riches, Congo is torn by a civil war that started in 1996 with more than 6 million dead. Even these months, hundreds of criminal gangs on the borders with Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, are ready to do anything to defend their economic interests. Gangs often manoeuvred by multinationals that are in dire need of manpower to protect their business.
In the lands of the East, particularly in the provinces of Kivu and Ituri, there is daily fighting without any real control by the national authorities. Rival gangs, often improvised, violently impose their rules on the local population, which is reduced to the point of exhaustion. And it is here that the greatest number of atrocities are committed: murders, burning huts, trucks, buses, kidnappings, mass rapes… For two years President Tshisekedi has declared the regions of Ituri and Kivu to be under a state of siege ruled by the military.
In May I was in Beni Butembo, where people are fleeing.
In these tortured lands, people are abandoning their villages, crops, livestock and taking refuge in larger centres where there is more security.
And it was there, some 20 kilometres from Goma, the capital of North Kivu, that the life of our Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, the carabiniere escorting him, Vittorio Iacovacci, and their Congolese driver, Mustapha Milambo, ended in an ambush on 22 February 2021. A few days later in another ambush, on that same road, the chief military prosecutor of the Rutshuru territory, William Hassani, who was in charge of investigating the death of our compatriots and the driver who was driving them, was killed.
For years there has been strong interference from neighbouring countries (Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi), armed groups such as M 23, Codeco, the ADF… increasingly intense infiltration of jihadist groups, gangs that exploit the economic and social fragility of the populations to infiltrate the region.
There is talk of ‘balkanisation’
The real goal of these hundreds of gangs is to get their hands on the Congo’s treasure, its riches, and to divide the Congo.
A treasure that the whole world covets, especially the coltan that is already in all our homes: in our computers, televisions, telephones, cameras, batteries.
Thanks to the approximately 35,000 enslaved children (but the real numbers could be higher), they manage to squeeze through the narrowest tunnels and unearth the precious material.
Ten to twelve hours of work, in exchange for a daily wage that can vary from one to three dollars, depending on the client.
Each precious material has its own market. For coltan and cobalt it is mainly China (with an intermediary from Rwanda). Gold, on the other hand, is brought illegally to Uganda and Rwanda by rebel gangs and from there exported to South Africa or Dubai, where it is refined and transformed into ingots for the end markets: the United States, Europe, China, India. Every morning small cargo planes fly over the territory to transport these riches.
Every year, our bishops offer a message to Christians and the whole of society on the socio-political and economic situation of the country and offer lines of solution for a more dignified life for the whole of society, and for years they have been denouncing the policies of neighbouring countries that support the various armed gangs seeking their interests… but who listens to them?
Even Pope Francis in his trip to our country in February, in his various meetings with political and administrative authorities, young people, catechists, bishops, priests and consecrated persons, again launched a message of peace and reconciliation. Pope Francis came to console the hearts of those who for years have not stopped weeping in the midst of so many wars, suffering, deaths, looting, burning villages, child soldiers, violated mothers and daughters, and proclaimed “we are all reconciled in Jesus Christ“.
Francis called on the sons and daughters of this country to rise up with courage and to those who continue to exploit this beautiful country he proclaimed ‘hands off Congo‘, because the real wealth of Congo, ‘the real diamonds’, are the men and women of this immense country.
The first Consolata missionaries arrived in Congo in 1972 to replace the missionaries killed by the Simba in 1964
Immediately learning the local languages, entering into the different cultures to understand and dialogue, they set to work visiting villages, engaging in school education, opening schools, training teachers (many had been killed by the Simba) responding to the health problem by training nurses and doctors, building health centres, hospitals, nutritional centres and constructing wells.
Another commitment was the training of leaders, social animators and catechists for the many villages scattered throughout the forest, commitment to justice and peace, and the accompaniment of young people who want to commit themselves to religious, priestly and missionary life. Another work with our people has been, and still is, renovating bridges and roads in the forest.
Unfortunately, the administrators are not so committed and one way to change this is to give young people the opportunity to attend schools, accompany the sick to health centres or the nearest hospitals, and encourage small trade between the different villages.
There have been various projects for a more organised agriculture with courses, distribution of working tools, seeds and domestic animals.
In every sector of development, there is always an attempt to animate, to raise the awareness of the people of the village or neighbourhood, so that they take charge and become autonomous without depending solely on external aid, which is diminishing more and more.
An important choice continues to be to follow school education with school buildings, aid with scholarships from primary school up to and including university. Helping a child, a young person of school age, is helping him to organise himself and live out his years with more dignity, thinking about his responsibilities for tomorrow, especially in these several years of war we have lived through.
Every day they still knock on the mission’s door for help in paying for school, medicine, hospital, rebuilding the little house destroyed by the torrential rain… but unfortunately aid from Italy has greatly diminished due to the economic crisis, Covid and the Russia-Ukraine war.
Despite everything we continue to proclaim the love of the Lord
Thinking back over these 30 years, I can say that only the love given and received by these people, the faith in the Lord and in the knowledge that He never abandons us, have given me the strength to continue to remain among our people, even though the messages from Italy were and still are often ‘come back among us… there is a war going on… we need priests’.
For several years, nothing could be done, but only PRESENCE in the various villages, the celebration of Holy Mass and the other sacraments gave courage to our people to believe in a new Congo, committing themselves to building new relationships of friendship, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In 1998-99 in Doruma, a mission close to Sudan, SPLA rebels looted our entire mission and after a month in the forest I returned with Brother Dominic to the mission. He stayed at the mission and I, being younger, would visit the 87 chapels by bicycle. Before the looting we arrived by Land Rover and we always had clothes, medicines, salt, exercise books… but now stolen from everything I only had the Word of God and the bread and wine for the Eucharist… the people welcomed me as a priest, an unforgettable experience that strengthened my faith in the Lord who never abandoned us.
A great responsibility for real change in this country lies with the local, provincial, regional and national authorities. One gets the impression that many people want to get involved in politics because they get rich easily.
So we continue day after day happy to see our people becoming aware of their responsibilities, rejecting corruption, tribalism, as Pope Francis reminded us on his trip to our country.
The Church, which has been committed for years, continues to accompany our people even though it is often criticised by those in power for its words of justice and truth: priests, catechists, bishops and lay Christians in these 30 years have been killed or made to disappear without knowing anything about them.
Let us commit ourselves to a more just and fraternal world
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enter your homes, your hearts.
Father Rinaldo Do