Wednesday, April 07, 2010

D.R. Congo: "In one moment, I lost all the joy of what had been the most wonderful day of my life ─ and I also lost my legs"

Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - More than ten years of armed conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo have left many people disabled. They are marked physically and mentally, and they are often excluded from economic and social life. The ICRC helps them return to a life that is almost normal. Pascal Nepa and Pedram Yazdi report from South Kivu.

Walungu, South Kivu Province. It happened ten years ago. "Just a week after I was married, our village was attacked by armed men," Jean-Marie Ndawakuderwa recalls. "In one moment, I lost all the joy of what had been the most wonderful day of my life ─ and I also lost my legs."

Jean-Marie was taken to hospital that evening. His condition was serious, and both of his legs were amputated. "I was stuck in my wheelchair, and I could no longer support my wife or provide for my family."

For Jean-Marie, as for many other victims of the violence that has been rampant in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo for too long, economic consequences and psychological trauma often add to the physical suffering.

But there is always new hope. One of Jean-Marie's neighbours advised him to contact the ICRC-assisted Heri Kwetu Centre for the Handicapped, where physical rehabilitation and care are provided for the war-wounded. ("Heri kwetu" means "It's better at our place" in Swahili.) A Heri Kwetu representative then called on Jean-Marie and persuaded him to make the journey to Bukavu, where the centre is located. There he was fitted with orthopaedic appliances, which enabled him to walk again. Finding a job and feeling that he can support his family again is now no longer an unattainable dream.

Taking an active part in society again

Heri Kwetu is the largest orthopaedic centre in South Kivu. "We're about to celebrate 31 years of operations," Centre Director Sister Thérèse explains with a smile. "With support from the ICRC, we fitted 95 people with prostheses in 2009."

Despite her advanced age, Sister Thérèse continues her conscientious inspections of the workshops where the prostheses are manufactured. She visits the patients and then the disabled children, who receive schooling in a nearby building, shaking hands with some or embracing anxious parents reassuringly.

The ICRC provides care for the patients at the centre who are direct victims of armed conflict and who need physical rehabilitation. It also helps them get back into an economic activity such as carpentry, dressmaking or doll-making in order to facilitate their reintegration into society.

"It is extremely important to restore the dignity of victims and to give them the best possible chance to play an active role in society again," says Nicolas Daniel, who is in charge of running the ICRC's orthopaedic programme in the DRC, a programme from which almost 200 war-wounded – both civilian and military – benefited in 2009 at five different centres. "The Heri Kwetu Centre enables disabled people to regain that dignity in a professional environment and a congenial family atmosphere."

With ICRC support, Jean-Marie decided to sell phone cards in order to regain his autonomy. "Now I can hold my head high. I can feed my family and look after my wife when she is ill," he says proudly. "It's almost a normal life, isn't it?"

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