A gaggle of Indian soldiers holding a post on a hillock here is crestfallen. A primary school, run by Unicef barely 40m down the slope, was hit by a storm of mortars on the morning of September 21 by troops loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda, well versed in devising new tactics to destabilise the government. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was a Sunday and the school was shut.
But the 854 children haven’t returned, with their frightened parents scampering to the safety of filthy camps for internal refugees.
Pointing to the date on the blackboard ‘Mardi, 16.09.2008,’ Captain Saurabh Mamgain, who commands a mechanised column here, wistfully told HT: “There was a flurry of activity when the children were around. Their presence was cathartic and symbolised things were improving. We miss them. The troops keep enquiring about their return.”
More than 8.5 lakh civilians have fled their homes in the troubled province of North Kivu fearing atrocities, despite a peace deal the Congolese government signed with Nkunda and a dozen armed groups this January.
Ironically, the Indian peacekeepers had selected Kimoka and developed it as a “peace village.” Now littered with debris of war, it was here that political representatives of the UN’s Congo mission held talks with Nkunda’s fighters in hopes of ending violence and holding ceasefire.
The transcendent love for these schoolchildren came unbeknown to the 50-odd Indian peacekeepers manning the Kimoka post. The blue berets (colour of caps worn in UN service) would any day prefer their high-decibel merrymaking to the humdrum of infantry vehicles patrolling flashpoints in the vicinity.
“The children’s choir would often walk up to our post and sing for us. Fortunately, they were not in the classrooms when the mortars landed. We understand the apprehensions of their parents but we want them back,” said an Indian subedar.
And when they do, Mamgain’s band of benevolent soldiers in this oasis of hope will organise a special service for them at the school church.