OP CROCODILE providing for children in need in the Democratic Republic of Congo

OP CROCODILE providing for children in need in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Hear the first-hand story of Operation CROCODILE task force deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It has now been nearly four months since I arrived on tour with this mission. Even before my arrival, I had been notified that Canadian military personnel in Goma took care of an orphanage, the World Orphan Kids (WOK). Without yet knowing the details of this task, I thought it was a very good idea to look after young children in need. Helping people is typically Canadian: everywhere I’ve visited in the world, whether on operational missions or on personal travel, I have always received positive comments on my being Canadian. And for me, a father of a little girl, it is impossible not to be moved by children’s suffering.  

The orphanage, which usually houses about 140 children, has recently seen a substantial increase in the number of children that it cares for. Indeed, since October 20, 2022, given the advance of M23, an armed group resisting the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a significant influx of displaced persons in Goma has brought its share of people in need to the area. In the eastern DRC, war has been a part of everyday life for more than 25 years. Two volcanic eruptions directly affecting Goma have only made matters worse, increasing the number of children abandoned. Needless to say, we arrived at a good time to fill up the orphanage’s food reserves.

Since 2013, Canadian Armed Forces members participating in MONUSCO have supported this orphanage, by providing food products and by synchronizing infrastructure projects with the Canadian embassy. While it is a secondary duty, it is always a pleasure to plan and carry out this kind of humanitarian aid in support of people who are truly in need. For the past few years, the funds for purchasing the food have come from Boomer’s Legacy, a charitable organization in memory of Cpl Andrew (Boomer) Eykelenboom, who died in combat in Afghanistan. It’s goal is to provide humanitarian aid in the communities where Canadian military personnel on deployment are serving. As an aside, I must say I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the funds were allotted after I put in a request in September.

Located roughly 30 minutes from the heart of Goma, the orphanage lies in the middle of a small village of makeshift houses. Everything here is very basic: houses built with whatever materials are available: rocks, earth, concrete, old pieces of sheet metal collected over the years, and a few tree branches to support the whole thing. The road to the orphanage is not paved and is made of volcanic rock, which considerably slowed down our convoy of food supplies. On the way there, we attracted the attention of little children who ran alongside the vehicles shouting “money, money”. They held out their hands in the hopes of receiving something from these “mosungoos,” these white-skinned people who come to their village. But once we had greeted them in French, they all said: “Donnez-moi un biscuit!” (Give me a biscuit!).

The convoy to resupply the orphanage requires a certain amount of preparation. First, I had to communicate several times with the administrator of the place. The administrator, whose name is Philippe, is a father in his forties whose job is to take care of the orphanage. He recruits volunteers, manages the facilities, and is genuinely concerned about the children’s comfort and health. Of course, as would be the case for anyone who doesn’t know from one day to the next whether there will be food on the table, he really wanted to make sure I would keep my word. As such, he called me nearly a dozen times in the week leading up to our visit. I couldn’t blame him: he only wanted to make sure that the “papas canadiens” (Canadian papas) really were going to deliver the food the orphanage needed.

Meanwhile, MCpl Niyonizigiye prepared the administrative paperwork and ran errands in the nearby markets. Using the funds from Boomer’s Legacy, he bought enough food and supplies for the orphanage to provide for its children for two months. Surprisingly, charcoal was probably the most important purchase: as there is neither electricity nor access to any alternative source of power, the only way to cook is with pots and pans placed directly over a charcoal fire laid out on a bed of stones. The menu consists mainly of staple items, such as flour, rice, beans, cooking oil, semolina and biscuits. All this to say that, on day of the convoy (a bright Sunday morning), the three members of TF CROCODILE were ready for their task of resupplying the orphanage.

Along the way, we decided to stop at something like a corner store. I bought some little homemade doughnuts and five dozen bananas. This was my third trip to the orphanage since my arrival here. Every time I go, I bring a little something (that I pay out of pocket) for the children to eat, so they can have something to munch on right away. A little further down the road, Maj Arseneault, my companion, decided to buy some biscuits—a lot of biscuits. This attracted a large number of children from the nearest village. Unfortunately, “mosungoos” are rarely seen in this part of town, so those that do come draw a lot of curious locals. The children formed a half-circle around my companion, hoping to get a little something from him.

The arrival of us “Canadian papas” was highly anticipated. We were barely out of the vehicles before we were surrounded by children of all ages. They all had one thing in common: they all held out their hands in the hopes of receiving money, pencils, biscuits or even more biscuits! The few employees and volunteers waited patiently for us, smiling. We took the time to greet the children, who came running from all directions, surrounded us and had fun fist-bumping us foreigners. They were well aware that we came bearing food. But, looking around, I began to wonder: there seemed to be a lot more children than usual! In addition to the recent increase in the number of children at the orphanage, it turned out that our visit had attracted almost all the children in the village. I had a feeling I wouldn’t have enough doughnuts and bananas. So I asked one of the “mamans sociales” (literally, “social moms”) to prepare small, individual portions for the children. Maj Arseneault immediately offered to help cut and prepare small pieces of food.

Meanwhile, there were children swarming all around us. At the “social moms’” call, they hurried into the two classrooms and sat at their desks to await their breakfast while singing “Vive le Canada” (Long live Canada), a song composed by the grown-up volunteers to celebrate our country’s contribution to their orphanage. The children waited crowded together, and made some noise—lots of noise. I sang with them and entertained them for a while as a clown would, which allowed me to unwind. Yet I realized that there was a war raging in many parts of the country and that it was coming dangerously close to Goma. I tried to hide the weapon tied to my waist, but the children paid very little attention to it. Police officers and soldiers can be found on almost every street corner here, and they are all armed to the teeth. Such is the reality of the eastern DRC.

Then came the long-awaited moment: breakfast. The social moms began doling out portions in the two classrooms. They did the best they could to distribute the few plates of doughnuts and sliced bananas as fairly and evenly as possible. Needless to say, hygiene in the whole operation was minimal: a single jug of water stood at the front of the class for the children to wash their hands—without soap. As I looked on in silence, I was reminded of how big of a deal a doughnut can be for a child. Indeed, looking back on my own childhood, I remembered my grandmother’s doughnuts and what an important part of my visits to her they used to be. We took a few pictures. It warmed my heart to see these children looking happy.

Things became more complicated as the last few plates arrived. The children became uncontrollable, left their seats and rushed towards Maj Arseneault and MCpl Niyonizigiye to try to get their hands on the last morsels of food. Unable to get inside the classroom, the two “Canadian papas” remained stuck outside on the doorstep as they tried desperately to maintain order among the young children. It was quite a sight to see: the children were almost on top of each other, hands outstretched. It was impossible to know who had had their share and who hadn’t. I noticed Maj Arseneault, who, wanting to make sure the last doughnuts were distributed fairly, crouched down to feed a young girl. It was a beautiful moment. This was Maj Arseneault’s first visit to the orphanage. A little later, on the way back, he would tell me that he would never forget the children’s smiles or the sense of harmony he gained from visiting the orphanage.

Meanwhile, as I stood among the children, I contemplated the moment. Beside me was a small boy carrying on his back a child who must have been his younger sister. She was no more than a year old, and she was eating her piece of banana bit by bit. It reminded me of my daughter who had just turned 11 months old. I took a few pictures of the children standing in front of the Canadian flag. In an effort to make the young girls feel just as important, I asked them to pose in front of our flag, too. Later on, when I looked at the photos, I noticed that one of the children was wearing shoes that were so worn that his toes could be seen poking through the front end. Some of us are less fortunate than others.
During the last part of our visit, Maj Arseneault and I played with the children in the courtyard of the orphanage. The games were very basic and consisted mainly of singing and of hand-clapping, which of course gave the children the opportunity to touch the “mosungoos” and take a few pictures with them. Oddly enough, the children were very interested when Maj Arseneault took a selfie with them. They practically piled on top of one another in order to be in the picture—a picture they will probably never see. It was touching. Meanwhile, MCpl Niyonizigiye finished the necessary paperwork with Mr Philippe. The volunteers, some of whom had very particular names, such as “Prince,” “Trésor” (Treasure) and “Généreuse” (Generous), lined up to receive their bimonthly pay one by one to ensure the education of these young people. Thank you to Boomer's Legacy for supporting these children in their pursuit of hope. And thank you for offering us “Canadian papas” this most rewarding experience!

By Lieutenant-Colonel A. Hottin, Chief Liaison Officer with the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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