The impact of conflict on children must be everyone’s concern. Those at Bvumbwe camp cry for warring Thyolo villages to give peace a chance. James Chavula writes
Fenia Malanga and her husband Manuel Jumbe have become refugees in their district of origin.
Actually, the couple was displaced by clashes that forced about 100 residents of Ngumano Village in Thyolo to take cover in an incomplete resthouse behind Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) at Bvumbwe Trading Centre.
“We were devastated to leave home, but conditions at the camp can break every mother’s heart because children are facing depressing problems,” says Malanga, 19.
For the camp’s 94 escapees, they were left homeless on January 25 when residents of the neighbouring Wilson Village invaded Ngomano, burning, looting and destroying houses, livestock and crops.
The woman was pregnant when she fled home. On February 20, she gave birth to a baby girl at Bvumbwe Research Station’s clinic. Unfortunately, Nisha, the newborn, died of pneumonia almost a week later—a loss she squarely blames on worsening conditions at the camp.
But the grief-stricken parents also cry for the future of 54 children at the congested camp. Thirty of them are pupils.
“I don’t want the children in our midst to follow Nisha because they do not know why we are here,” says the woman.
And adds her husband, 20: “It is sad that children are living on one meal a day like prisoners. They sleep on the floor without blankets. Some have suffered malaria because they have no mosquito nets. They no longer go to school. What will happen to their chances in life?”
The situation at the camp brings to life what United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) executive director Anne Veneman pointed out in Children and Conflict in Changing World: Children in conflict-torn context are “less likely to be in school or have access to clean water and basic sanitation”.
At the entrance to their temporary shelter, visitors are greeted by open fires and a stench that signals unsanitary conditions of a toilet and a bathroom which caters for all escapees. Bare-footed children step in pools of urine and other filthy spills.
Beyond the unsanitary block, there are 15 rooms designed for two people each. Some of them house between seven and nine people at the moment, a situation that compromises their well-being, comfort and privacy, according to Alesi Jonas.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), “living in crowded homes” and “indoor air pollution caused by cooking using wood” increases the likelihood of contracting pneumonia, the leading cause of death in children worldwide.
“The acute respiratory infection that affects the lungs kills an estimated 1.2 million children under the age of five every year—more than Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined,” reads the pneumonia factsheet on WHO website (www.who.int).
The displaced community wants government to fasten mediation and repatriation efforts.
Eye of the Child executive director Maxwell Matewere says it is shocking and surprising that government is dragging its feet when its citizens, including children and women, are facing untold misery.
Said Matewere in an interview: “Government must take necessary steps to unite the two villages and repatriate the homeless group to Ngomano. We need to put into consideration the lives, safety and rights of children who have spent three months in terrible conditions without going to school. They risk learning irresponsible behaviour, including drunkenness, fights and smoking which are common at Bvumbwe.”
On the other hand, the civil society, human rights organisations and Thyolo District Council have teamed up to pacify the warring villages for the good of the children.
Thyolo district commissioner (DC) Lawford Palani describes the peace-making and repatriation efforts have suffered a new setback as another man, called Kapanga, has crowned himself head of Ngomano.
The DC said it is worrying that children have become victims of an endless inter-village wrangle.
According to him, the neighbouring villages have been fighting since 15 years ago village head Wilson was told to hand over power to Ngomano.
“Soon after my arrival in April, I personally negotiated with the two sides to reinstate Wilson, but that was disrupted by the recent fighting,” he explained.
Group village head Ngomano agrees that what he calls a “battle of grudges” has left children in disgusting conditions.
“It is sad that this is affecting women and children who do not know what went wrong,” he says, admitting the impact of the conflict on children rights offers conflicting villagers and mediators an extra reason to make peace.
In her review of children in war-torn contexts, former South Africa’s first lady Graca Machel reminds leaders that “Our collective failure to protect children must be transformed into an opportunity to confront the problems that cause their sufferings.”