For many years the people of the DR Congo suffered the agonies inflicted by a series of devastating wars.
And despite a peace deal and a transitional government formed in 2003, people in the country's north-east still live in fear of rape, murder, and assault by various military factions - with children being most vulnerable.
Now a dynamic group of schoolboys has created a unique project, run exclusively for children and by children - children who have made it their mission to defend the rights of others.
Filmmakers David Turner and Lara Zizic spent several months in Eastern Congo, filming the efforts of two teenage boys who are fighting for the rights of other Congolese children and young adults.
They describe the making of the film and the challenges faced by Congolese youths trying to change the future of their country.
Eastern Congo is one of the most violent places on earth. Children here face a daily reality plagued by human rights violations; including abandonment, rape, physical violence and child soldiering. Congo's future hinges on its children, but that future is compromised by the country's current state of lawlessness and a culture of impunity.
Years of continued war has left the political system in tatters. Foreign companies' thirst for mineral resources (tin, coltan and cassiterite) for use in electronic devices such as cellular phones and computers, fuels this corruption on all levels. International agencies try to help, but in many cases that help is misdirected, arguably exacerbating the situation. The future rests with the Congolese themselves in the form of organisations such as the Children's Parliament.
Children's Parliament is a local organisation run by kids for kids. Their mission since its conception in 1999 is to fight for the rights of children. As teenage students, the Parliamentarians dedicate their free time to this noble task and receive no payment, despite enormous obstacles and risk to themselves. Members of Children's Parliament are elected by their peers and delegates are chosen from different neighborhoods, schools and districts. What unites them is their will to make a difference for Congo's children.
We wanted to make a film that would personify the myriad of problems faced by youths in Eastern Congo and hold out a candle of hope for their future, in the form of two leaders of the Children's Parliament. We first met the Parliamentarians, Alimasi & Museke while filming another documentary on International aid in Congo. We were trying to find examples of Congolese aid organisations, and came across the Children's Parliament.
When we first met them, they were in their office joking around with each other, like ordinary teenage boys. From the moment we asked them about their organisation, it was clear they were far from ordinary. When we asked about what they did, they eloquently explained their mission and the problems they were trying to address, with a depth and understanding far greater than the foreign aid workers we had spent most of our time interviewing.
They discussed their belief that the future of Congo must be led by its children. Unlike many foreign NGO workers tainted with cynicism, these boys are articulate and funny, but deadly serious about their work. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and drew us in immediately. When we said we were interested in filming them, they invited us to follow them in their work and personal lives so that we could see first-hand what they are doing.
Visiting the HQ
The next day we bumped along a dusty street to the Headquarters of the Children's Parliament. On the main building is a large painting of soldiers pointing guns at a man trying up a woman with the words, "Stop Rape." A former child soldier who is now the Parliament's security guard waved us through the gates. Once inside, we were greeted shyly by a line of women and children waiting their turn to enter the bureau.
The voices of a children's summer camp choir singing, erupted from the main meeting room directly behind the office, mirroring the joy and terror which so often mix in the lives of the Congolese. Alimasi described the organisation's method as two pronged, "We use a child-to-child approach, and we use a child-for-child approach." The first method means a child helps another child in need directly, for example, by preventing him from being beaten on the street. The second method involves a child advocating for the child in need, such as by speaking to a parent or a local official to help the child.
We witnessed Alimasi and his mentor Museke, as they performed both functions. In one case they helped a girl abandoned by her parents re-connect with her father. In another, they helped a young mother, abandoned by the father of her child seek reparations. Museke says he finds the work he does among the most rewarding in the world. "As long as there are people with problems, as long as I'm alive, I'll share what I know to help people change their behavior. It's what invigorates me.
You don't always have to wait to be helped. I think I've learned how to help others, rather than wait to be helped and I want to share that knowledge."
Spending time with the children
Over the months we spent with the boys, we started following them in their daily routines; at the Children's Parliament office, at school, with their families and with their friends. We quickly realised that while most of the boys have family lives and do well in school, the vast majority of their time is spent with each other.
Much of the time is spent tackling the Children's Parliament's heavy caseload - but they still find time for jostling around with each other and for hanging out with their girlfriends, most of whom are also members of the parliament. "Sometimes we get into arguments but that's totally normal. When there is a problem we all help each other out, we all work together. For us it's our way of life."
We witnessed firsthand, how that way of life can put them into grave danger. One of their colleagues from another village was killed due to his work as a parliamentarian during the course of the film, and subsequently several of the other parliamentarians received death threats. While scared, they hashed out their concerns during numerous meeting and decided against toning down any of their activities or messages.
But despite the best intentions and unending energy and determination, they are not always successful. Sometimes the children seeking help never return to the office intimidated by their victimisers, particularly when the perpetrator are parents or other family members. Sometimes the international organisations with whom they collaborate dismiss them as children because of their age, and shut them out of cases the parliamentarians brought out into the open.
But the Congolese police and legal organisations work wholeheartedly with the Children's Parliament. We witnessed a police officer thanking Museke for bringing a young girl's plight to his attention, and pledging to follow up on the legal end of the case, while Museke followed up on the socioeconomic side.
Another major challenge for each of the parliamentarians is what they will do after they graduate from high school. In Congo, schooling is not paid for by the government and even primary school fees are too high for many families to afford. While all of the parliamentarians have excelled in school, many will not be able to attend college because their families cannot afford the fees.
There are no scholarship programs, government loans or part-time jobs in Congo. We were so inspired by their tenacity, we contributed to a website which bridges the organisation with international charities, in the hopes that through international donations, most if not all of them can attend college and law school and continue in their path of service.
While it may be little by little, Alimasi, Museke and their friends are changing the country, and not just in the short term. In addition to helping kids one by one, they are also working in schools to educate a whole generation of children to fight for their rights and the rights of their peers in Eastern Congo.
We hope that we have reflected their energy, compassion and great senses of humor in the film and have shown the world the potential of these extraordinary Congolese teens.
To learn more please visit: www.parliamentdesenfants.com
Source: Al Jazeera