Democratic Republic of Congo humanitarian crisis: ‘She has no option but to stay and suffer’

Mark Johnson, Concern’s Emergency Programme Manager in DRC’s North Kivu region, details a recent trip to a camp where at-risk displaced people are not far from conflict.

‘Extremely difficult days’ in Eastern DRC

It is Friday afternoon in Goma and our team has just returned from an extremely difficult mission in North Kivu. I am the Emergency Programme Manager with Concern in North Kivu and have been based here almost 10 months. The last two weeks have been, perhaps, the most challenging I have faced since I have been here and we expect these demanding circumstances to persist in the coming weeks.

In short, North Kivu is the province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the largest number of displaced persons — estimated at 1 million in November 2017. This makes the DRC is the country with the most displaced people in the world for the second year running. The reason for such a high level of displacement is an ongoing conflict that has been rumbling along at varying levels of violence since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

Concern has been operational in North Kivu since 1994. We currently have an emergency programme, where we respond to alerts of displaced persons. Recently, we received an alert of a ‘spontaneous camp’ called Nyabiashwa. When we refer to ‘spontaneous camps’ it means that a group of displaced persons have arrived at a location and set up camp there. These are not managed by the government or any UN agency, so usually have little to no resources.

Dire need in rural camps

Two weeks ago, I accompanied our team to evaluate the situation at the Nyabiashwa camp. Accessing the camp was our first major challenge. On the first day, we aimed to reach the village of Luke, which is approximately 80km from Goma, the capital city of North Kivu.

We are now in the short rainy season and the rainfall has been extremely intense — more so than usual it seems. There are no tar roads outside of Goma. In the dry season, driving through North Kivu is like being in a dust storm. However, this is the lesser of two evils.

In the rainy season the roads turn into an incessant mud bath. We made slow progress to Luke. In this season, it is essential to travel with two 4x4 vehicles, because if one gets stuck, the other vehicle is needed to pull it out. It took six hours to reach Luke after multiple occasions of getting stuck and negotiating our way around a landslide that almost brought the whole road down the side of a steep mountain, which the roads in North Kivu wind around.
We spent the night in Luke in rooms separated by waterproof sheets and with pigeons living in the roof. I’ve had better night’s sleep.

The next morning, we set off on foot to Nyabiashwa. The camp was situated on the crest of another hill, which meant it was necessary for us to descend one mountain and climb another. After two hours, we reached the camp.

The pictures only begin to demonstrate the dire needs of this camp. There were approximately 900 households packed into this site. Almost all were living in structures made of bamboo, with only straw to shelter themselves from the elements. The rest of the team conducted focus group discussions to find out exactly what the population’s greatest needs were.

‘Stay and suffer’

As I don’t speak Swahili or Kinyarwanda, I was not able to contribute much to the discussion. However, I asked one young man who spoke French to accompany me around the camp and talk to some of the residents. One such person was 17-year-old Rehema Fidele (pictured above beside her “house”).

She lives in the structure she is pictured beside with a 10-year-old girl. She fled here with the rest of her village from a place called Ngululu, where conflict had broken out between rebel groups.

She arrived at this site in September and has no family with her. She built the structure she lives in herself and there is nothing inside except for one cooking pan. There is no roof other than a few lengths of straw. When it rains at night she has no option but to “stay and suffer”.

She says the neighbours look after her, but she must also look after her “petite fille”. Unfortunately, it was not possible to continue the discussion discretely, as the sight of a mzungu [white person] in conversation with someone in the camp brought about a significant degree of curiosity and there is no possibility of privacy. Suffice to say, Rehema is extremely vulnerable in this camp.

Assessing the greatest needs

My colleagues completed the focus groups discussions and we hiked our way back to Luke, just about managing to beat the rain. The next day we arrived in Goma. An analysis of the discussions revealed that the needs were great in several areas. The most immediate needs were food security, shelter and non-food items (NFI). Another organisation was addressing the food security needs, so we planned to address the shelter and NFI needs.

Within 7 days we had a team back in Nyabiashwa with 900 tarpaulins to be distributed to each household. The team also registered each household with our Digital Data Gathering devices, so that we could create a database of the beneficiaries for a much larger distribution to address their NFI needs. When we talk about NFI needs, we mean the basic items needed by a household to survive such as cooking pots and utensils, blankets and mats to sleep on, clothes for all family members and hygiene kits including sanitary pads for females.

I had not accompanied the team on this mission, as I was on a different mission with our Cash for Work programme, where we pay local communities to repair roads. When I returned to Goma, the team were still in Nyabiashwa. The following day we received news that fighting had broken out between armed groups in a nearby village. This village was on the route back to Goma, so we instructed the team to stay put until we received further news.

Having spent the night in Luke, the following morning we communicated with the team that the fighting had ceased and that they should return to Goma immediately. The road out of Luke had deteriorated even further and it took the team 6 hours to travel 13km. During this time we were getting updates on the security situation, hoping the team would get out before any conflict recommenced. Luckily the team got out of the zone that afternoon, as there were further clashes that evening.

Few options remain

The possibility of organising a fair has been discussed. This would involve Concern arranging for suppliers of various goods to assemble at a certain point where the beneficiaries would be given vouchers to purchase the items they need. However, with the current security situation the suppliers are unlikely to want to risk going to this zone. Even if they were willing, the condition of the road means it is nearly impossible to transport items to this zone.

The final option is to arrange a distribution of standard NFI kits ourselves. We face the same challenges described above regarding security and accessibility. However, after further consultations with the camp’s leaders, we believe we have identified a location that will be safe and accessible to distribute the NFI kits.

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