Congo's Indiana Jones: Changing Lives, One Child at a Time

Board Member Diana Buckhantz and Director of Policy and Programs Mike Brand are traveling in the Democratic of Republic of Congo's eastern provinces to work with survivors of the country's decades-long conflict, which has claimed nearly six million lives. They are meeting with JWW's partners on the ground, with whom JWW works to create innovative programs and projects that change lives and transform communities. This is Diana's sixth trip to Congo with JWW, and Mike's first as a staff member of JWW. For more information on supporting the projects described, please contact Jewish World Watch at
 

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A year ago I wrote, "There are days that fill you with hope − with a hope that the world will one day wake up and become accountable for all the violence and hate. A day in which inspiration reigns and true heroes show themselves. Today was one such day for me in Congo." Along with other members of the JWW delegation, I had spent a very long day with a partner organization working to provide a new life for former child soldiers and young women who were abused by the militias.

Those words resonate with me today after visiting this same partner and finding myself once again inspired and moved by his courage, tenacity, fearlessness and overwhelming compassion for these vulnerable young people. He has an "Indiana Jones" mentality, fearlessly negotiating with the militias to free the children, coupled with a precise strategic approach. He appears to be the only person in Eastern Congo doing what he does.

His name is Dr. Murhabazi Namegabe, and he is the founder of BVES (Bureau Pour Le Volontariat au Service de L'Enfance et de la Sante), a transit center for young men and women who were stolen into the militias. JWW is proud to partner with Dr. Namegabe and the whole BVES family.

As I said, Dr. Namegabe literally negotiates with militias to get them to release young men and women that have been forced to become child soldiers or "wives," a sad euphemism for sex slaves. Once freed, the BVES staff begins the process of trying to rehabilitate them, reunite them with their families (if at all possible) and integrate them back into society. They stay with BVES for three months while they are given psychosocial evaluations and assistance and begin their education process; at the same time, the staff tries to find their families or a foster family to take them in. He and his staff then follow the young people for a year to make certain they are integrating well back into society. It is important to remember that these young people − boys and girls alike − have been deeply traumatized by their experiences. Without services, the boys may continue to perpetrate the violence which is all they have known, and both the boys and girls will continue suffer deep emotional consequences.

In one of his two facilities, Dr. Namegabe houses young women who were impregnated by their rapists and are now raising the children. He also has been housing orphans whose parents were killed or were somehow separated from their children; these children are often found wandering alone or in pairs. The facility is bare-bones and cramped. The girls sleep in bunks with the babies, and there is no place for the children to play except a dusty cement area.

Two trips ago, Dr. Namegabe told us that his dream was to buy land outside the city where the children could be safe and play like children should − a home with grass and a garden and fresh fruit and vegetables. Jewish World Watch wanted to assist this remarkable man and these children, and a year ago we began a project with him to build this new Center. Last year when I was here, I saw the land he had purchased; as I stood on top of that extraordinarily beautiful hillside, I cried.

Today we visited the new facility, and I was once again moved − but this time also amazed. There is certainly work to be done: the Center is not complete, there is furniture needed and a building to be completed and the list for "phase two" goes on and on. But the facility is beautiful, and the vegetable garden and animal husbandry project are already beginning. What is even more wonderful, however, is Dr.Namegabe's vision of what this could be − not only for these children but also for the neighboring poor community. In constructing the Center, Dr. Namegabe has provided the community with jobs, and opportunities will continue and grow in number once the Center has officially opened. He also hopes to build a better school for all the children.

Dr. Namegabe's passion and commitment is to these children who are often ignored and or even worse, rejected. To make change on their behalf, he engages both supporters and adversaries. His skill at maneuvering through these opposing players − whether it be the militias or the mayor or MONUSCO (the UN stabilization mission in the DRC) − is remarkable to see.  His gift is his integrity and his steadfast insistence on neutrality, except when it comes to these children. There is nothing neutral about his determination to help them live a better life. It is hard to resist.

I am so grateful to be involved with an organization like JWW that has found such remarkable partners. It is impossible not to be hopeful on a day like today.