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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Almost a million children orphaned by Aids in the Congo 21/6/01

The Luvangadio family live in a tiny brick shack in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa. The children don't go to school. They haven't the money, and spend their days playing in the dirt yard. Their father, a taxi driver, died of AIDS five years ago. And now their mother Antoinette is dying. She lies on the bare concrete floor. Unlike many AIDS sufferers, she does have some help, a visit twice a week from Charlotte Fatou, a nurse with the local charity Amo Congo. Antoinette complains her ribs are painful after so much time on the floor. Charlotte says she will try to find a mattress. But it's hard to protect your possessions when your front door is a flimsy curtain. Six children also share this tiny room. Charlotte tells the eldest of the children that she ought to be learning dress-making. The family desperately need money. It's difficult for the children because their mother can't work, and she is the one who looks after her children's future. She is completely weakened. There is no way she can earn money.

It's difficult for the children because as you can see the mother can't work and she is the one who looks after the children's future. She is completely weakened, there is no way she can earn any money.

Tragedies like this are repeated, constantly, right across Africa, on a scale that's almost inconceivable. Over 25 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. As families are destroyed, 12 million children have been orphaned. Here in the Congo the problem is made worse by the continuing war and an almost complete absence of government help. It's left to women like Charlotte Fatou to spend her days visiting those dying of AIDS. Her next call is Jacqueline Bowu, whose husband died of the disease four years ago. She's worried not just by her illness, but by the poverty it has brought her. Until now she has survived thanks to one of her ten children, a daughter who is a market trader. Now she's been jailed for handling stolen goods and there's no money coming in.

Today I have nothing to eat, and I didn't eat yesterday. I was given some maize, but there is none left.

And what about your children?

The children don't have any food. They can't go to school because I can't afford the fees. I can't afford the rent for this house, so they are trying to make me move out.

Those who live along the banks of the Congo river in this sprawling and dilapidated city are used to hardship, despite the potential wealth of this vast country. It was plundered by Mobutu, ripped apart by foreign armies in the war, and now faces economic upheaval as the new President, Joseph Kabila, scraps low fuel prices and lets the currency float. That move may please the IMF, but it has forced up prices, which makes life even harder for those with HIV/AIDS and unable to earn a living. For those who can afford treatment, Kinshasa has a general hospital, the largest in the country. Patients pay for everything their beds, treatment, medicines where available, even HIV tests, and rely on families or friends to bring them food. Even a public ward like this costs two dollars a day, well out of the reach of many who are sick. Those with tuberculosis, which is often AIDS-related, do get free TB drugs, under a scheme run in Kinshasa by a consortium of NGOs and charities. But there are no free drugs in the maternity ward, where we found a mother weeping over her dead child. When a mother is HIV-positive, her youngest two or three children are often found to be infected too. But if there were the will and the money, this could be tackled. According to the government's own figures, at least 12% of the children born in Kinshasa are HIV-positive. And that could easily be stopped with a course of drugs to the mother in labour and the new-born. But it's simply not happening. The drugs are not here, and even if they were, no-one could afford them. They would have to be provided free. There is, of course, the danger that children saved in this way could soon become orphans if no steps are also taken to prolong the lives of their mothers. And the orphans of parents killed by AIDS now present a massive social problem for the Congo and for Africa. An English lesson at St Valentine school, out near Kinshasa airport. Almost all the children are orphans, their fees paid by a Congolese charity. Judith Tudiongonga is just 15. Her mother died of AIDS three years ago, her father one year ago. Now when she leaves school, she has to walk home in her broken shoes, a journey of nearly an hour, and act like a mother herself. Her two brothers and sister, aged from nine to six, have been waiting for her return. They are a sad, quiet, young family, worried about their future. Judith wants to find a job when she leaves school so she can continue to look after them. But she's terrified that they could all lose their home. An aunt, a member of her father's family, is trying to seize the house, a common practice in Kinshasa, where a surviving wife and children often find themselves evicted after a husband has died.

Without my parents, there are only difficulties, suffering and sadness.

What do you miss the most?

What we miss most is the affection and love of our parents. We get no love from anyone. No-one cares about us.

What if you lose the house?

We're being threatened, and I can't defend myself. I'll have to submit to my aunt and where do we go then? I'd have to try to find someone to look after me.

Kinshasa is a city that lives on the street. Despite its poverty and painful history, it's famous across Africa for its music and parties. But away from the bright lights, there is a new night life. The streets have become home for literally tens of thousands of orphans who lost their families to the war, or to AIDS. The boys operate in little gangs, getting food however they can, often by scavenging or thieving, and sleep in groups in doorways. According to the government's own figures, there are 900,000 orphans across the country. It's a vicious cycle. AIDS brings poverty, which in turn leads to a further spread of the disease as girls, some mere children, turn to prostitution. This group said they were 13, but some looked even younger.

Life is hard. There is no-one to help us and that is why we decided do this.

You are an orphan, your parents are dead?

I am an orphan.

Are you frightened of getting AIDS? Do you take any precautions?

No. There are men who are strong and take us by force. They can rape you and dump you the following day. We can't defend ourselves.

The sheer number of AIDS orphans living on the streets is already causing concern. In Kinshasa, a teacher, Pascal Rukengwa, has set up a project to find work for a few of the children, warning that the future development of the country could be threatened by so many young people growing up on the streets with no education.

In the future we will certainly become slaves. There is no future for the country, if the young people who are to build the new state are not educated, if they don't learn to work or live like men. In the street people live like animals. If they don't learn how to live, to be citizens, they won't build families, because they are not men. They can't build a state. It will be catastrophic.

Is there any help from the government?

No, no, no, there is no help from the government. There are speeches from time to time. They announce things on television, but in practical terms there is nothing. Look at the government budget, when there is one. The amount devoted to social programmes is ridiculous. And now it's got worse, because everything goes on the war.

The Kinshasa government does run a national programme for the fight against AIDS. It's headed by a doctor who has a budget for an office and staff, and who attends international conferences, he'll be at the UN in New York next week. Jean-Pierre Musengela knows what he'd like to see done, he'd liked drugs to stop mother-to-child infection, an AIDS awareness programme, and free schooling for all AIDS orphans. But he doesn't have the money.

I agree that the government does not do enough. I know why the government has not given enough money until now. It's not an excuse that's given lightly. It's an everyday reality that all the efforts are focused on the war. Even my salary has not gone up because of the war.

In Kinshasa, the continuing war is blamed for everything. The city's population has been swollen by the "displaced" who have fled here to escape the fighting, which has involved some six foreign African armies supporting either the Kinshasa government or the other factions. Some who have moved to Kinshasa come here to the Ngiri Ngiri quarter, where there's a project for women with HIV/AIDS. Like AMO Congo and Nouvelle Humanity, Fondation Femme Plus work in partnership with the British group Christian Aid. They run a workshop and a successful little restaurant that makes money for women who have often lost their homes after the death of their husbands. Bernadette Mulelebwe, the organisation's director, argues that in the Congo, AIDS is spread by poverty and by the war. Rape has been used as a weapon.

In this war, among the weapons that have been used is the AIDS virus. Most of the armies that have entered the Congo are armies that are infected. We know from reports that thousands of women have been raped, young and old, on purpose so that they can catch the virus.

She took me to meet a group of women who had escaped from the fighting in the east. The two youngest girls are both now HIV-positive. Madeleine Mwayuma made a remarkable journey. Her daughter Yvette, who is mute, was captured by Rwandan troops in Kisangani, a thousand miles away up the Congo river. Madeleine managed to find her, and they escaped together by canoe.

She was there with this Rwandan for four months, and forced to live as his wife, it was four months of suffering. She was beaten by this man right up until I went to get her.

And now she is HIV-positive?

Yvette is HIV-positive. She has been very ill and since we have been in Kinshasa she suffers. We've been chased from where we were living because she is HIV-positive.

Rebecca Suguru also escaped from the east, travelling with her husband. The journey ended in disaster only when she reached Kinshasa.

When I fled from the east I left with my husband. When we got here, he had his family here and they didn't accept me because we are not from the same province. They threw me out of the house. I knew no-one here so I found myself on the street. To survive I was forced to sell myself to men. That's how I became HIV-positive.

So she too is a victim of the war and poverty. At Kinshasa's main cemetery, there's a constant sad parade. Several funerals take place at once. Next week, the UN General Assembly's AIDS summit will consider the continuing crisis in Africa. What's needed in the Congo is clear, mass education, help for the street orphans, drugs, particularly to stop mother-to-child transmission, and an end to the war.

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