Situated near Lake Albert, Bunia was ripped apart in 2002-2003 when rival ethnic militias began battling over nearby gold mines and trade routes to Uganda. The conflict was a bloody sideshow of Congo's larger war that began in 1996 and sucked in seven different African armies at its peak. A peace agreement in April 2003 did little to quell the violence in the restive eastern regions. Weeks after the treaty, militia consisting of hundreds of child soldiers invaded Bunia and murdered over 500 civilians in their homes and on the streets. Families were destroyed and torn apart. Parents and relatives went missing, never to be seen again. Dozens of children soon emerged from the bush in need of care and with nowhere to go, physically and emotionally damaged. By 2005, the conflict had killed millions of Congolese, mostly from starvation, sickness, and disease when gunfire forced them to flee their homes. Today, despite relative peace across most of Congo and the heavy presence of United Nations peacekeepers, armed groups continue to operate in the hills outside of Bunia. Militia leader Cobra Matata keeps a cadre of child soldiers south of town. Further north, the Lord's Resistance Army murders and kidnaps at will. These groups occasionally battle UN and government troops, and each time, the cycle repeats itself: parents die, families unravel, and children are left alone.
The children at St. Kizito were all orphaned as a result of war, both directly and indirectly. While some parents were killed in militia raids, most died from the widespread lack of quality health care, food, and clean drinking water. Mothers succumbed to malaria, TB, or died during childbirth, while fathers were nowhere to be found. Some children are the result of rape -- a common weapon in Congo's long war -- and were abandoned at birth. Others lost mothers and fathers to HIV/AIDS; several children now live with the virus themselves.
St. Kizito is operated by Sister Catherine Wadhiko and her order of nuns at the Charite´ Maternelle Congregation (Maternal Charity Congregation), or CMC. A native of Aru in northern Ituri, Sister Catherine has worked in CMC clinics in both Goma, DRC, and Kigali, Rwanda. She arrived in Bunia in 2013.
The organization's only paid staff member is Marrion P'Udongo, a local minister who's been called the "Oskar Schindler of Congo." In May 2003, as militia sacked Bunia and executed hundreds of their ethnic rivals, the pastor sheltered scores of people in his home and miraculously guided them to safety. Later, "Pastor Marrion" established himself as the ace fixer and interpreter for the world's leading news agencies who covered the conflict, including the New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, BBC, PBS, NPR, and ABC's Nightline. In 2010, Marrion suffered massive kidney failure and nearly died. In an effort to save him, several journalist colleagues launched an international campaign to raise funds for a life-saving transplant, which he received in 2011. In addition to his work at St. Kizito, Marrion now pastors at Chrisco church and operates a volunteer ministry inside Bunia's notorious Central Prison.