Clowns bring smiles and inspiration to displaced people in eastern Congo

News Stories, 7 October 2009

© UNHCR/S.Rodriguez
A member of Clowns Without Borders, surrounded by Congolese children.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 7 (UNHCR) In camps in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where more than half the 1 million internally displaced people (IDP) are children, a team of clowns from Europe has been treating the suffering and trauma with laughter.

"Children who live in areas of crisis, such as conflict or post-conflcit zones, rarely get to laugh," Asuka Imai, a field officer at UNHCR Goma, said of the recent visit by the Spanish branch of the aid organization, Clowns without Borders. It was their second visit this year.

"These children had never seen this kind of show, which in the end is very constructive and not just a performance. This is an innovative idea to use laughter to heal trauma and distress for children."

The tour started in Kibati IDP camp, 15 kilometres from the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma, which hosts 3,000 displaced. With music blasting, the clowns emerged from a tent to enchanted children who had assembled hours before the performance. The youngest of those sitting on the ground in a circle looked about five-years-old.

"It was overwhelming to see the energy and hear the music of these wonderful people . . . the day seemed magical," said one of the teenagers interacting with the clowns during the performance.

For a few hours, the children forget their experiences of fleeing homes and witnessing violence, said the president of Kibati camp. The clowns also went beyond IDP camps near Goma to reach isolated camps in Kitchanga and Masisi, performing in front of a total of 48,000 people.

Clowns Without Borders was created in 1993 because of the suffering, especially for children, caused by the war in the former Yugoslavia. They are professional clowns or circus artists who volunteer their time and talent.

"We play with them as a team, we support each other," said Gili, a 14-year-old girl who appreciated that the clowns invited them to join in. "When the children are launched in the air there is always someone ready to catch them so they do not fall."

In fact, the need for unity, support and reaching a common objective is the main message spread by the clowns as they bring communities together so they can celebrate and forget, briefly, the tensions in their lives.

"I will be leaving the camp soon since peace has generally come back to my village," said Pascal, a 42-year-old from the Masisi region. But he hoped Clowns without Borders could return to perform for those who will bear the mental scars even after going home.

"Even there, children need this kind of entertainment to overcome the suffering and the difficulties, to continue with their life," he said. "Bringing a smile to a misfortunate kid, or even any normal kid, is a wonderful gift to give."

By Francesca Fontanini in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo