Updated: Thursday, 9th July 2020 @ 8:21am

The 'ignored' war in Congo: Refugees have a lot to offer Manchester

The 'ignored' war in Congo: Refugees have a lot to offer Manchester

By Carrie Smith

The Democratic Republic of Congo and Manchester do not often appear in the same breath.

One is a war-torn African country the size of Western Europe and awarded the title of rape capital of the world by one senior UN official, while the other is a cosmopolitan city often flouted as the football capital of the world.

Yet Manchester is home to more than 1,000 Congolese refugees – many living in poverty – who have fled the country often described as the centre-point of Africa’s world war and regularly awarded the dubious accolade of being bottom of the UN’s human development index.

City captain Vincent Kompany and Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba both have connections to the  second-largest country in Africa.

Kompany, whose father was a Congolese migrant to Belgium, does regular charity work for children in Kinshasa, and Muamba followed his father – a political adviser for former president Mobutu – to the UK after he fled the DRC.

Lutala Tambwe, 36, organiser of Salford-based African Refugees Support Centre (ARSC), came to the UK from Congo, where much of her family still live.

“This generation really need help and we find them on the street – education is fine, but they need something else,” she says.

“The young ones need to understand their background and women are limited because of language and technology.”

Two years ago, ARSC won funding and had a team of volunteers helping African refugees within the community by providing a wide number of services, including translation, training and access to computers and the internet.

Now funding has dried up and the organisation, who no longer have their own office, rely on a room loaned to them by the New Life in Christ Church for their prayer group and choir practice.

As I sit with her at the charity’s temporary head quarters in the church, I can hear impassioned French prayers as her pastor husband, Antoni, leads a group in the next room.

Antoni is studying microbiology at Huddersfield University and hopes to open a laboratory in Congo when he graduates to help victims of malaria.

“Africa is crying,” Lutala says.  “But we see a bright new future for Congo.”

Lutala says she hopes one day to expand their work – she wants to send clothing to women and children in Congo.

She tells me of Congolese women she knows who have been attacked – gang-raped and assaulted by rebel soldiers with any object they can find: gun butts, sticks.

Sexual violence in Congo is systematic: 47 women are raped there every hour.  In one particularly brutal four-day period, 300 women were violently raped by rebel groups in the remote area of Walikale.

But it is also men who are targeted by this weapon of war – they are raped and sexually tortured by rebel groups, their children and wives forced to watch.

Lutala asks: “If we can help Egypt, why not Congo?”

And this is a question echoed by many.

Laura Seay, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Morehouse College, Atlanta, and leading blogger on African politics said: “Media and governments do tend to focus more on wars in the Arab world than in Africa.”

She points out that the US now imports as much oil from Africa each year as it does the Persian Gulf and Western governments are becoming increasingly concerned with countries such as Somalia becoming terrorist havens.

“I suspect that coverage of Africa will soon catch up to the continent’s geostrategic importance, but whether it will ever eclipse the Middle East in terms of Western attention is very much in doubt,” she says.

The war in Congo – often called Africa’s world war due to the huge death toll and its encompassing of Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Zimbabwe and others – is complex and it has often been reduced to a resource war or tribal battles.

Although a peace deal was brokered in 2003, the mineral-rich east of the country is still very much in conflict – and ignored by the rest of the world.

The Congo we see through Western eyes is usually primitive and corrupt, with a crude heart of darkness metaphor rolling in the dust and dirt as Tintin, dressed in safari attire, battles herds of wild animals and witch doctors. 

And yet despite its bloody history, Congo has such potential.  Its rivers alone could power much of Africa and although the state has failed, it’s vibrant and generous society certainly hasn’t, evident in the kindness and compassion shown by Lutala and the Congolese community in Salford and Manchester.

Lutala says goodbye and slips into position with the rest of the choir.  They sing in Bantu and it is beautiful.

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