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Africa's haunting cries

By A. Chris Gajilan
CNN
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BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- -- "What's wrong with you?" a 14-year-old Congolese girl asked us in Swahili. "We were singing and dancing and you all just looked so sad. What's wrong with you?" We looked into the eyes of the welcoming group of pre-teen girls and flat-out lied, "We're just tired from our journey."

The truth is that it's hard to shake off sadness when you travel around much of Central Africa.

We had been reporting from the town of Bunia in the war-torn eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bunia is Phase 3 in United Nations-speak. That means there are security checkpoints on almost every corner. There is a curfew at night. United Nations peacekeepers are everywhere. Barbed wire glitters in the light.

It's in this fortified city that young girls from all over the region have flocked to start a new life. There is a center here for demobilized child soldiers. Upon our arrival, the girls sing songs of peace, friendship and overcoming suffering....all with joyous East African drum beats and heart-melting harmonies. As I look into their smiling faces and listen to their clapping hands and uplifting voices, it could be easy to forget why we are here. It could be easy to forget so many things...that all were forced against their will to serve in militias fighting the Congolese army ....that not one of them is over age 16....that each one had been a victim of rape and other violence.

Our team has been traveling in Central Africa for ten days. It's tough terrain here. We have taken 10 different planes and countless truck rides to get to and from each location. We spent the early days at refugee camps on the Chad-Darfur border, and most recently, at camps for internally displaced people in Eastern Congo. Both countries face unfathomable turmoil  both humanitarian and political, but they each has a unique story.

There are currently 13 UNHCR refugee camps on the Chad side of the border with Darfur, More than 230,000 people have come so far; new camps are planned to accommodate the continuing flow of people seeking safety and basic needs.

It is rainy season. Greenery dots the dry, dusty landscape. Rain showers cool the afternoons. Sometimes makeshift rivers called wadis form overnight, providing a source of water, both drinking and bathing, for many Chadians.

Here, the rain does far more than just cool people off. It protects them. The mud makes it difficult to travel...keeping out both the much-needed aid supplies and deadly and violent janjaweed. Darfuris and Chadians wonder what the dry season will bring. They worry of increased danger once the rain stops.

In the camps, unbelievably sad stories are in the eyes of every person you meet. There is 20-year-old Souya Ibrahim Abdullah. The janjaweed attacked her Darfur village after midnight. She barely escaped the gunfire and destruction. As she ran with her baby on her back a bullet, meant for her, struck her baby. Her life was saved, but she is forever traumatized.

Believe it or not, aid workers in this part of the world say the conditions are remarkably good. The refugees are getting international standards for food, water and shelter. The camps are remarkably clean and well organized. If you look quickly, you can mistake it for a village. Many of the people have been here almost three years and have built makeshift homes from gathered sorghum sticks and aid distribution tarps. It's strange to see roofs of huts labeled UNHCR, UNICEF and USAID. Small plots of crops grow next to their huts. They are doing their best to re-create their lives in this foreign land, instilling trust and power in tribal figures and electing leaders for each district of the camp. They are beginning to lose hope that the violence in their country will ever subside. They are beginning to lose hope that they will ever go home.

In Chad, people are fleeing genocide. In Congo, people are seeking refuge from a bloody civil war. The numbers are astounding. Since 1998, 4 million people have died from the fighting. Especially sobering -- 1,200 people die every day. That's the equivalent of a tsunami hitting every 6 months.

Congo is lush country, jungle everywhere you look. Surprisingly, Congo is incredibly rich in natural resources -- everything from diamonds, to gold and silver and the metallic ore called coltan.

There is no shortage of violence and terror here. Anastasie, 58-years-old, introduced me to her three and a half year old granddaughter. They traveled for hours to get here. She needed to get treatment for the little girl. She had been raped.

Anastasie tells me her granddaughter's story is not uncommon in her town of Komanda. She tells me it happens often -- little girls victimized, but no one talks about it. When asked why it is common, she cannot give a reason, she can only shake her head as tears well up in her eyes.

It would be far too easy to focus on the sadness here. It can be overwhelming and debilitating. But all I have to do is remember the singing and dancing 14-year-old girl in Bunia, asking, "What's wrong with you?....Why do you look so sad?"

Chris Gajilan is a senior producer with CNN's Medical Unit.


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Photographer Jeremy Harlan and senior producer Chris Gajilan beside a wadi in Chad. Dr. Sanjay Gupta is atop the truck.

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