Congolese Kids Not Reaping Any Benefits From Country's Step Toward Democracy

As many as 1,200 people die a day amid the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and more than half of them are children, according to a new report by the United Nations Children's Fund.

With preparation for Sunday's first free elections under way, the humanitarian tragedy in the country continues to unfold.

More children under the age of 5 die in the war-battered African nation each year than those in China, which has a population 23 times larger, UNICEF said in "Child Alert -- Democratic Republic of Congo."

The report, which was released on Monday, was compiled by former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, who traveled to eastern Congo as a UNICEF ambassador earlier this year.

"Numbers at hand, it is easy to be overwhelmed by what has happened in DRC because of the sheer scale of it," said Tony Bloomberg, UNICEF representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo while in London.

"The eight-year-long conflict has killed over 4 million people, displaced 1.6 million, and created the largest concentration of child soldiers in the world -- as many as 30,000 at the height of the conflict."

Put Children First

Children bear the brunt of unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is slightly less than one-fourth the size of the United States.

Not only are they caught up in the violence as casualties and witnesses, but they sometimes are forced to participate in atrocities and crimes that inflict physical and psychological harm, the report says.

"They should be top of the agenda after polls on Sunday," Bell said. "Sexual assault on women and children has reached epidemic proportions, with 25,000 cases of rape in the east of the country in 2005, and these are only the reported cases. Forced to migrate, children are deprived of their basic right of schooling, health care, and are often caught up in combat."

Established as a Belgian colony in 1908, the Republic of the Congo gained its independence in 1960, but its early years were marred by political and social instability.

The war in the central African nation officially ended with a peace agreement in 2003, which led to a transitional government.

Conflict continues, though, in parts of the East. Despite not being the panacea for all the country's problems and woes, the elections are key to restore order and stability. The U.N-financed polls are expected to open on Sunday.

"For the first time in over 40 years, the Congolese people will have a real choice at the polls and a real chance to end what is often called the 'First World War' of Africa," Bell said.

Stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo can play a key role in stabilizing Africa.

The country has a strategic position in the continent, has the second biggest rain forest in the world after the Amazon, and is extremely rich in natural resources, with its gold and diamond mines ranked as some of the most precious in the world.

Natural Source of Tragedy

The Democratic Republic of Congo's essential source of wealth also has affected children's lives -- for the worse.

The employment of children in the mines is very common, according to a UNICEF official.

UNICEF understands that children's work helps their families' budget, but it also keeps them away from schooling and exposes them to bad health conditions.

Exact figures on the number of children employed in Congolese mines do not exist. Small children are a crucial component at the mines because they can access narrow and fragile pits.

"UNICEF is addressing the problem talking directly to the communities and the families and providing informal schooling, which is recognized by the government," Bloomberg said.

"We do not back children employed in the mines. Education remains central in our work in DRC."

New Government Needs Support

In a glimmer of hope, the report highlights the first multiparty elections in 46 years as an opportunity for change.

The population has learned to deal with the long-lasting conflict with the church, developing strong roots all over the country even in the turbulent East.

In addition, a network of local nongovernmental organizations provide support within varying communities.

Bloomberg suggested that the international community needed to support the new government and encourage it to strengthen schooling and health services. Right now, aid agencies don't reach everyone because of security issues.

The United Nations is breaking records with its $422 million support of the election polls.

More than 25 million Congolese have already registered to vote -- more than 77 percent of the eligible population.

This is a victory for free elections, but U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has called it a "logistical nightmare" because of security concerns and the size of the country.

On Sunday, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, who assumed power after his father was assassinated in 2001, will face 32 presidential challengers, including former rebel leaders.

Meanwhile, more than 9,000 candidates are contesting 500 national assembly seats.