Scores of homeless children and others living on the streets of Congo’s capital have been rounded up and accused of starting a protest that led to violence as an increasingly tense nation awaits presidential election results.
Advocates for street children said those arrested were scapegoats, but Interior Minister Denis Kalume was quoted on state radio Monday as saying the 337 homeless people, including 87 children and 15 mothers, had “provoked this (violence) by disturbing the peace.” Kalume said they were being taken outside the capital for “social training.”
Violence erupted Saturday between supporters of President Joseph Kabila and Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba, the contenders in a presidential runoff late last month. The governor of the Congolese capital said gun and mortar fire killed three civilians and a soldier in front of Bemba’s home — the scene of the weekend fighting.
By Monday, Congolese soldiers had taken up positions in a nearby cemetery, some sleeping on bullet-scarred gravestones that used to serve as beds for street children. None of the children, usually a ubiquitous reminder of Congo’s devastation, were in sight Monday morning.
“Those who weren’t arrested are hiding from the police,” said Mado Langalanga, who lived in the cemetery for nine years until she got a job educating street people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.
Kinshasa, a sprawling city of about 5 million people on the banks of the Congo River, has an estimated 50,000 homeless people and children can be hired for just a few cents to march in a demonstration or burn tires, said Guy Milongo, who works for the private Association for the Development of Young Street People.
Radio stations described the protesters as “shege,” a word Milongo said is derived from Che Guevara, the Latin American revolutionary who came to fight for Congo’s independence, and whose name is invoked to mean a revolutionary spirit.
He said the homeless refer to themselves as “Yankees,” using the American expression to describe a person who overcomes all odds to survive.
The government has a conflicted attitude toward the homeless, Milongo said, noting Kabila invited about 50 street kids to his wedding this year and bought them clothes for the celebration. The very next day, police launched a roundup of the homeless.
On Sunday, there was supposed to be a soccer championship among street children’s soccer teams, whose uniforms were donated by the government. It never happened because the children feared arrest.
Often used as scapegoats
Langalanga said the homeless are often used as scapegoats by politicians and government officials seeking to deflect blame for the violence and poverty endemic to Congo.
The latest eruption came as the Independent Electoral Commission posted results from 99.37 percent of the vote counting centers that had Kabila with 59 percent to 41 percent for Bemba.
Peacekeepers, the biggest U.N. force in the world with some 17,500 troops, have brought reinforcements into the capital, stepped up patrols and reinforced positions in a show of force since the weekend confrontation. Riot police guarded strategic buildings.
The elections could set Congo on the road to democracy and peace after decades of dictatorship and war, but the violence underlines the transition’s fragility in this poor but mineral-rich nation of 50 million.
Supporters of Bemba, a former rebel leader, have alleged vote fraud.
In a televised address Monday night, Bemba said: “There’s no double-dealing in democracy. All that we want is that the truth of the ballot come out of these elections which we have worked to make free, democratic and transparent.”
Election officials and Kabila’s representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
The allegations of fraud led to the protest in front of Bemba’s residence Saturday, where young people set up a barricade of flaming tires that blocked the capital’s main boulevard.
Police fired into the air and dispersed the protesters. Armed men in civilian clothes then fired at the police, according to several accounts. Soon after, shootouts erupted between Bemba fighters who deployed in the cemetery across the boulevard from his home, and forces loyal to Kabila who took up position in a golf course beyond the cemetery. The fighting continued until U.N. officials organized talks between the two sides and persuaded them to withdraw their fighters.
Many of Kinshasa’s 50,000 homeless come from rural outlying areas of Congo, because the capital was largely spared when the rest of the Central African country suffered back-to-back tribal conflicts from 1997 to 2002. The fighting ballooned into a regional war that attracted marauding armies from six African nations.
Kabila inherited power from his father, Laurent Kabila, a former rebel leader who emerged as the main power after the war and was assassinated by his bodyguards in 2001.
A complicated peace process eventually took hold, foreign troops withdrew, and the most powerful warlords, including Bemba, joined a transitional government that helped organize elections that have cost the international community some $422 million.