And this is too hard; on life and early death in the Congo.

04/12/13 This story won an Ossie award for best photojournalism.

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After spending some time in the Congo,there’s certain aspects of this bizarre and beautiful place that you get used to. Like all countries, what was once exotic becomes banal and is swiftly absorbed into everyday life. You get used to the sight of AK-47s slung across the slender shoulders of most of the men, the security nests, the barbed wire. You get used to the fetid smell of rotting food and the snotty, fly blown faces of kids in IDP camps with no hope, and nowhere to go. You get used to the sickly sweet stench of sweat that lingers around bodies long since washed. You get used to the sinister tanks on the street, the power cuts, the unpaved roads, the wads of filthy, useless currency. You get used slinging your leg over a motorbike driven by a boy aged, at best, 14 years old. You get used to the peaks of bureaucracy and those who have scaled them. The well worn press officers with well rehearsed lines and the feeling deep in your bones that nothing’s going to change. You even get used to sitting in a plastic chair, in a tiny office and looking into the eyes of a 14 year old as she calmly details the night she woke up with a 35 year old man pressing his body inside hers.

But there are certain things you can’t get used to. Something inside you riles up and stops you short and delivers a blow straight to your intestines that leaves you gasping for breath and wondering just what the hell is going on here.

Today we had to bury one of the babies from the orphanage. The father, a soldier from FARDC had abandoned the mother. The mother had HIV and died. The baby was also suffering from HIV and arrived at the orphanage severely malnourished, anaemic and in a generally bad state.

The orphanage tried their best, but the child died late last night.

And this is too hard.

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The service was small and swift. A couple of sisters, an old man with a deeply lined face and a few wide eyed children gathered in a small room and read prayers. On a wooden table sat a small coffin, it’s bright floral pattern jarring sharply with the weight of the air in the room. I sat in the corner feeling raw, thinking about life and death and what this weird mess of existence means.And nothing prepares you for the smallness of a child’s coffin. A single candle flickers and goes out.

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We walk to the graveyard, the coffin bumping along over the mud. There is a large colourful group there when we arrive. They eye me suspiciously. Some more words are said, the coffin is lowered, we sing again. I lift the camera to my face, because that’s always been my tactic. Document now, make sense of it later. The dirt flies in and hits the wooden lid with a heavy thud. The men stomp to flatten the dirt, and I hear the lid crack.The children step forward, their sandals slipping in the fresh soil. They lay some already wilting wreaths and it’s over.

And this is too hard.

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A few days earlier in the marketplace Pastor Marrion Pudongo and I had unwittingly become front row audience to a man suffering from some kind of horrific seizure. We sat in the car, my knuckles turned white as I gripped the dashboard and told myself over and over “this is not happening.”The man writhed in the dirt like a dying insect, his limbs askew, eyes rolled back in his head and filled crimson with blood. Paralysed with helplessness I asked the pastor, “is there something we can do?” He paused then replied, “Maybe we can take another route.” Out on the main road, the tension shattered when the pastor laughed, “You wanted to help? You’re a very kind girl. Here people are dying every day, we just go on.”

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I mistook this as callousness on behalf of the Congolese. Leaning against the car, staring at the dirt I whisper; “So Pastor, if so many people are dying, do people care that much about funerals?”

The pastor studies me for a second before replying.”People care, people have a lot of compassion. They just don’t have the means.”

“If someone dies and the family can’t afford a coffin, the neighbours will pay. The neighbours will stay with the family for 3 days and nights, providing food to the mourning family and helping feed the distant relatives who arrive from all over the country.”

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He gestures to the mound of dirt in front of us. “This baby who died today, he was an orphan. Most of the people here didn’t even know him. They just heard, maybe by word of mouth, that there was a death in the area. So they came to mourn. Or else they came from the funeral over there, and before that one starts they came to pay their respects here.”

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The crowd is already dispersing, moving a few metres over to the next gravesite Pastor Marrion spoke of. Another coffin arrives, riding high on the shoulders of some sturdy men. They don’t need many to carry it, the coffin is just as small. Suddenly, the crowd ripples with commotion. They part slightly and through muddy thighs you can make out the face of a woman lying in the grass. She looks still, serene.

“It’s the mother,” the pastor says quietly. “She’s dying from grief.”

And this is too hard.

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We wait for about fifteen minutes, milling about. My uselessness becomes apparent and sets my feet in the ground stronger than the sticky mud. The woman doesn’t rise. I want to leave her a while, she seems so peaceful there, so far away from the reality that awaits. But something must be done, and we have the car. The crowd loads her into the passenger seat, propped between the firm plump arms of two women who had come to mourn, and we make our way down the muddy path to look for help.

The obvious option is the hospital, but just before we left her husband had broken through the throng to lean on the window and beg us, plead not the hospital, because it’s too expensive.

And it’s always, always, always the way. And this is too hard.

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So we slip and slide through the back streets of Bunia looking for a local doctor. On the way, i ask the two women about the mother and her child.

Her child was one year old, a little girl. She died from pneumonia. The mother here suffers from low blood pressure and the stress was too much. I look over my shoulder at the woman’s face. Her eyes are closed and sewn with deep veins.I imagine her softly beating heart collapsing all at once. The arteries close up and the pink heart shrivels and the blood stops still in her veins.

We carry her into the doctor’s office and lay her on a thin mattress. Whilst the women fan her, I speak to Pastor Marrion and the doctor about illness in a very sick country. People talk about sickness a lot here, both about the health of the people and in a metaphorical sense to describe the pervasive corruption and war. Here is a country where sickness runs in its veins and its rivers. Here lies a land of decay.

And this is too hard.

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The pastor explains that blood pressure is one of the biggest problems in Congo, due to diet and stress.

Doctor Ngadjole Mugenyi operates his surgery in the area of Ngezi. He says the biggest problem he faces is malaria, along with a worm that comes from the locals drinking water from the nearby filthy steam.

I ask him about the child dying from pneumonia. Could she have been saved?

“If she went to hospital, of course. But if they leave the child at home, it will surely die.”

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, about 77 of every 1000 children born die before they reach the age of one. In comparison, the number of children in Australia who die before their first birthday is about five out of every 1000. That means if this baby was born in Australia it was more than 15 times more likely to live.

The mother lies still, her limbs are heavy and her head lolls. Doctor Mugenyi assures us she will be okay and will soon wake. As we trek back to the car i think about what awaits this woman when she finally does stir. Her mourning period, her distant relatives she must greet, her husband and other children she must console, her future she must forge, her burden she must carry, her dead child.

And this is too hard.

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