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Toddler s silence speaks volumes

RUTSHURU, November 12 – In Rutshuru’s overcrowded hospital, staff have been inundated by civilians with gunshot wounds since rebels seized a nearby town last week, among them two-year-old Elia.

Elia was pulled from a hut crowded with dead bodies in Kiwanja, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after fighting there last Wednesday. His cries saved him then, but since arriving here he has suffered in silence.

"It’s difficult to know exactly what happened to Elia because since being brought to the hospital on November 6 he has barely spoken a word," said Michelle Van den Bergh, project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres at Rutshuru Hospital.

"The whereabouts of his mother and father are unknown," she added. More than likely, they are among at least 50 civilians found dead in Kiwanja, according to aid workers.

Hospital staff said a Kiwanja resident passing a house near to the town’s main road last Wednesday heard a child crying. Inside, the resident found several dead bodies and Elia, the only one who remained alive.

He was brought to a health centre in Kiwanja and then to the hospital in Rutshuru where he still lay on Monday.

The hospital is a rundown collection of small, crowded, one-room units linked by a courtyard, which was filled Monday with children and adults, waiting to be seen by overstretched staff. Some were cooking food on the ground, others simply sat waiting.

Elia lay toward the back of the hospital’s crowded emergency room, the right side of his body pressed against a blue mattress.

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He stared blankly upward and never uttered a sound while a group of adults towered above him, discussing his case and taking his picture.

On his body he wore black pants, and on his left arm a cast, covering the place where a bullet pierced his skin.

Elia only speaks to the other children in the emergency room, when he thinks there are no adults around.

"The children only speak to each other," Van Den Bergh said, adding that because of his silence, the details of Elia’s experience are difficult to verify.

Elia was not the only child wounded during last week’s fighting between the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and government backed militias, but others were far more talkative.

Silve Kahindo, 10, who leaned against the bed opposite, spoke for five minutes without pause when asked to describe their experience.

"There were three bombs," she said. "The first one landed in the living room, the second one landed in the small room next door and the third one landed outside."

Kahindo escaped with just a small wound to the buttock, and on Monday was energetic, talkative and smiling, in contrast to the silent toddler lying a metre away.

"When the shooting stopped," Kahindo said, "I went looking for someone who could bandage the wound."

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