Human rights groups are protesting what they say is the eviction of street youths from Democratic Republic of Congo's capital, Kinshasa. Hundreds of children and young adults have been rounded up recently, and the adults sent to the province of Katanga a thousand kilometers away. Franz Wild recently visited Kinshasa, and files this report for VOA.
Dozens of homeless children chat and play in the cramped yard of Sainte Famille Oseper, one of Kinshasa's many shelters for street children.
The home is comprised of three musty rooms, where 160 children and youths sleep when they are not on the street. Outside, portions of beans and fufu, a starch paste, are lined up for them on a table.
Since November 11, the rooms are crammed. Those who stay on the streets risk being rounded up by the police, in the government's latest attempt to rid Kinshasa of an estimated 13,000 street children, it calls a threat to security.
Kotshi Tshetshe, 13, says she was among a group of about 350 who were recently detained.
Tshetshe says she was sleeping in a container, when the police arrested her in the middle of the night, accusing her of stealing $80. She says she spent two days in jail before she was released.
Tshetshe says she was not scared, because she is used to the rough conditions of living on the street.
She says she turned to life on the street at the urging of peers who told her she should leave home, because life would be better as a prostitute. She says her clients are homeless men, but she gets enough money for food.
The ranks of street kids first surged in the early 1990s, when the country, still known as Zaire, faced an economic downturn that pushed unemployment through the roof. Looting closed many businesses, and parents could often no longer afford to feed their children.
Many children and young adults have now spent more than a decade on the streets, and many have formed into gangs.
When Laurent Kabila toppled long-time President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, he introduced a national service to address the issue. The idea was to bring the homeless children back within the structure of the state, by giving them agricultural and disciplinary training on isolated farms. Though sporadic, the scheme continued when Kabila's son, Joseph, took power, following his father's assassination in 2001.
Senior coordinator for the national service, Professor Paul Ngongo, described the program as a great success.
He says, 6,600 test cases received a comprehensive education on a remote farm. He says the youths became useful to the nation.
Ngongo says those under 18 were always released, as were those who were unwilling to go.
But, he says, the street kids are drugged up and have no faith in the state. He says, authorities rely on police to round up the kids before they become a danger to the public. But, after that, he insists, it is up to them to decide whether they will take part.
Child social worker Philomene Pambu agrees that Kinshasa's thousands of street children are a problem, both because they are not growing up with an education and a home environment, and because they are a threat to other citizens.
But she says the government has got the wrong approach.
Pambu asks, "will they arrest all 13,000 children?" She continues, "what will they do with them and where will they put them?"
Pambu says many have been sent to a remote camp in the distant southern province of Katanaga without their consent, and they are not guaranteed decent living conditions there.
"Nobody knows what the national service has planned for the young men, in terms of food and shelter," she says. She is also unsure whether they will be paid for their work, or even fed properly.
Pambu says she believes the street kids are being removed because newly elected President Joseph Kabila thinks his main rival, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was buying their support and they were leading protests against him. The national service denies there is any connection. Bemba's aides say those demonstrating for him are his supporters.