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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 15:01 GMT 16:01 UK
Kinshasa's forgotten children
Kinshasa's central market
Tense scenes at Kinshasa's central market
By Arnaud Zeitman in Kinshasa

Street children knew him as "Babi", probably because he was small and rather quiet.

He had no ID card, but those who knew him believe that he was about 15 years old.

A bloody puddle on a dirty footpath in Kinshasa's central marketplace is now the only legacy left to his friends who, like him, worked there.


Street children in Kinshasa represent a social force authorities find difficult to contain

Nadine Giese, Medecins du Monde
A spokesman at Kinshasa's city council confirmed that Babi had been killed by a policeman on Wednesday.

"Babi stole some flour in Kinshasa's central market, so a policeman ran after him... and killed him," said Fabrice Wazenge, Kinshasa city council's press officer.

Rumours

But the exact circumstances of Babi's death remain sketchy. Conflicting accounts have emerged from Kinshasa's central market.

Grain seller in Kinshasa
Many sell food to make ends meet
According to Mr Wazenge, Babi threw a pot of boiling water on the policeman, who, feeling threatened, took out his gun and shot him twice.

According to Ivan Mbisi, a shopkeeper of one of the numerous cloth stores which surround the noisy market, Babi was killed after he and some of his friends tried to steal the policeman's weapon.

And street children say that he was killed after he tried to get back flour some policemen had stolen from him.

However, the difficulty in establishing the exact circumstances of Babi's death does not mean that his killing went unnoticed. On the contrary.

Rampage

For thousands of street children who live and work around Kinshasa's central market, the police are responsible and the death of their friend needed to be avenged.

"Babi was sleeping when the police killed him," said Abel Yasso, an 18-year-old boy.

In retaliation, dozens of street children ransacked the small police station in the market - destroying a few tables and benches inside - and looted products from market stalls.


Knowing the way the police operate here, they will be badly treated for sure

Amigo Gonde
One child even stabbed the market's police chief.

The reaction of the police did not take long.

Shopkeepers, street vendors and thousands of passers-by gathered in Kinshasa's central market as heavily armed police forces moved in, throwing tear gas canisters into nearby buildings, forcing dozens of street children out who had taken refuge there.

Witnesses saw police forcing many children into police trucks.

"At least 78 children have been arrested," said Amigo Gonde, an activist who works for the local rights group Asadho.

"Knowing the way the police operate here, they will be badly treated for sure," he said.

Plight

"There are many places in Kinshasa where street children are violently dealt with, and violence is usually their mode of communication," he said.

"However, there are also a few centres where they can receive a bit of food, first aid and even some love."

An aid worker for the French organisation Medecins du Monde said street children are a low priority for the authorities.

"Nobody respects street children in Kinshasa, and the authorities are just overwhelmed by the phenomenon" said Nadine Giese, who works at a Medecins du Monde-run street children's centre.

According to figures provided by Unicef, 15,000 children try to make a living on the streets of Kinshasa.

Most of them end up around the market after being abandoned by their families.

Often they are accused of being sorcerers.

"In fact, parents do not have the means to feed their children anymore, so they often use sorcery as a pretext to get rid of them," said Ms Giese.

"Street children in Kinshasa represent a social force authorities find difficult to contain. Once in the street, most of the children, some as young as four years old, embrace its rules and become immune to the old-fashioned discipline of most Congolese schools," she said.

"They become Congolese singers' icons and the targets of soldiers in recruiting campaigns.

"For them, the real struggle is just to live another day. If they manage, it's good," she said.

But 15-year-old Babi could not even manage that.

See also:

16 Aug 01 | Africa
Children riot in Kinshasa
06 Aug 01 | Africa
Kinshasa's grave concerns
30 Jul 01 | Africa
Kinshasa rally broken up
20 Apr 01 | Africa
Congo rebels allow UN to deploy
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