This Friday we said a moving goodbye to the five trafficked Congolese children whom we have been looking after for the past two months. They left with Mutinta*, their Social Worker, on the night bus to Lusaka for Transit Homes and eventual repatriation within a month to Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The children, 3 boys and 2 girls, ranged in age, from 5 to 10 years. Daniel was the eldest followed by John-Luke, then came Big Antoinette followed by Joseph and finally Wee Antoinette. The hardest thing was handing these children you have come to know and love back, accepting that you are only a pair of hands in the chain on their journey back, and providing a temporary refuge and place of safety, as the authorities try to trace their roots.
Over time, we managed to establish their true names and ages, get the names of their school and Church, teachers and Pastor, but they were a bit hazy about parents and home. Daniel was the most open and helpful with this. The self-portraits they drew of themselves, of home and school were sad and enlightening. The children were quite a disparate group and lacked the cohesion and care for each other you normally expect in a family unit.
None of the boys used the Swahili word 'Kaka (Brother) to each other, something you would expect. It also took some time for them to show love to each other and share and give each other food or sweets; the idea of the youngest first was an alien concept. Without our intervention the leader took first choice and the lion’s share of food and clothes. From this we believe, they came from an institution or were possibly street kids. In the early days Big Antoinette told us she had learned some English and used it to try and impress Ida - ‘Madam give me some money.’ We had told the kids to call us Papa and Maman but to begin with, Joseph kept calling Ida, Madam, the term he had obviously used to address his previous carer. Joseph also had many of the traits of an Alcohol Syndrome child.
The children were rescued when a member of staff returning on the bus from Lusaka, became suspicious when she saw 5 silent and cowed children spread out in the bus. The Congolese adults accompanying them, a man and a women, were also sitting separately but signalled to them by hand from time to time. They received nothing to eat or drink throughout the 10 hour journey. The staff member phoned the relevant authorities who stopped the bus outside Mwandi, freed the children and arrested the man who had a refugee passport. The lady who falsely claimed later to be the children’s grandmother, temporarily evaded capture but was eventually apprehended in Sesheke, carrying a single-page, forged, travel-document for her and the children.
The lady, who called herself Antoinette too, in a crude attempt to fabricate some family relationship with the girls, apparently had accompanied them from Lubumbashi and had the children call her Kambo (Granny) Antoinette. Papa Jean, the man had met them at Kasumbalesa Border Crossing and took them all by car to a ‘safe-house’ in Lusaka. According to the children it was composed of two rooms, a bedroom and sitting room. Papa Jean used the bedroom and they and ‘Granny’ lived, ate and slept in the sitting room. There they were frequently beaten and trained to obey without question their traffickers for the next stage of the journey. They were not allowed outside till they left for the bus station. They were fed once a day from one bowl, fish and inshima, hence the need to ensure you could eat the most in the fastest time.
Mwandi lies on the Trans-African Highway that runs from Walvis Bay to Dar-es-Salaam and this is used as a transit corridor from the DRC through Zambia, Namibia to South Africa. Our children were smuggled from Lubumbashi across the border and taken by car to the safe house in Lusaka. From there they were to be taken by bus to Sesheke and taxied over the border to Namibia. These ‘safe’ houses in Lusaka are provided by rich, violent and powerful criminals who control the business. Individual witnesses and officials are often offered tens of thousands of dollar in bribes to turn a blind eye. The women and children being trafficked are in all likelihood destined for forced labour, begging and vending or sexual exploitation, to earn income for their exploiters, under threats of violence and incurring debt-bondage. Another horrific end meets some children as they are killed and their body parts used for sorcery.
These children need counselling and a time of therapy and healing to recover from this ordeal. We are so thankful that they were discovered and spared the awful fate that probably lay in front of them. We appreciate the caring and compassionate good work in this case of our often-maligned Government Ministries. We are grateful to the Immigration Department, Social Welfare and the Judiciary for their sensitivity and professional efforts to ensure that these children are returned to their home and that those perpetrating this evil trade can be caught, and this modern open sore, can be eliminated.
Any society which looks to the future and is not narrowly and selfishly obsessed with the present will give the highest priority to the welfare of its children. We cannot and should not be silent in the face of such horrible and avoidable suffering and distress endured by those children
Their happiness and welfare is of paramount importance. It is a poor reflection on humanity if we permit this evil to continue. Is it not heartbreaking that 150 years after Livingstone’s death, Scottish missionaries are still trying to help prevent trade in human-beings and children at that?
Any child should be received with gratitude and treasured with love – a joy to the parents and a welcome gift to the community. Children thrive best inside a loving family, whatever its form, a family who will promote their rights and welfare. So while the good of the family should be promoted to enable this, individual and vulnerable children like, Daniel, John-Luke, Big Antoinette, Joseph and Wee Antoinette, need our protection from exploitation and abuse.
*Names have been changed to protect identities