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September 22, 2017

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Cemetery dwellers struggle in DRC

KINSHASA, DRC--In a Congolese cemetery overrun with weeds and rubbish strewn among the graves and banana trees, the living have moved in with the dead — some of them years ago.

For want of money and space, families have built houses out of earth, brick or sheet metal alongside tombs — some of prominent figures like the father of the current first lady — in the Kinsuka cemetery in Kinshasa, the DR Congo capital.

As they attempt to lead normal lives in this unlikely setting, the cemetery dwellers, who number at least several hundred, are not only living on the land illegally but also face dangerous sanitary conditions.

"You're afraid you're going to dig up a bone," said 19-year-old Emile as he worked on the foundation for his older brother's new house just steps away from a well-tended grave.

Should he, or the others, degrade a tombstone they face up to six months in prison, while living without a proper land title could mean a year in jail under the country's penal code.

Neighbour Bibiche, 23, has lived in the cemetery for two years but says it is still an unsettling experience.

"You feel afraid sleeping amidst the graves, but we had no home," she said. "The cemetery isn't good, we have no electricity."

Yet other cemetery residents say they not only have electricity but pay a "bill" to the national power company, SNEL.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, two-thirds of the DR Congo's 68 million people are mired in poverty, exacerbated by back-to-back wars that ravaged the country from 1996 to 2003 and left a complex web of rebel groups still terrorizing the eastern provinces.

Finding housing is a constant struggle for many, and large numbers of civilians — and even police and soldiers — have taken to the country's cemeteries to find a place to call home.

'Water smelling like a corpse'

But life among the gravestones is no free ride, explained Therese, a five-year resident of Kinsuka cemetery. The 57-year-old widow paid a local chief to buy four plots of land with her children's help.

"They cost between US$2,500 to US$4,000 (1,800 to 2,950 euros) each," said Therese, who like all the cemetery residents only gave her first name for fear of reprisal.

Inside her two-room house, the bedroom has a mosquito net but no bed.

"In November, the police came to destroy the houses. They took my things," she said.

"I had to rebuild my house, but I don't have the courage to rebuild on my other plots that I wanted to rent out."

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