By Raïs Neza Boneza
It takes us four hours to cruise on the peaceful waves of the Lake Kivu, an area that has known decade of unrest and armed crisis. The whistling winds of the lake seem to echo the aspirations of a whole region, to see peace and stability back.
From Bukavu in the south Kivu province, I am travelling to the town Goma, the Capital of North-Kivu to join a team of MSF staff (Doctor Without Borders) to visit an internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp south- west of the town. In 1994, from the two million Rwandan refugees who fled the genocide, seven hundreds of them lived in the Mugunga 3 campsite. Since then, hundreds of thousands of IDPs Congolese forced to settle in the area as the result of the many wars, battles, looting, killings, rape, and disappearances of men and women in the region.
In 2006, statistics showed that about three million IDPs are roaming around in the five Eastern provinces: The oriental Province, North Kivu, South Kivu, Maniema and Katanga. Lately, relative peace in the region, the number of IDPs dropped to around two million by 2013.
While the number has decreased, however, the people still need assistance for their precarious vulnerability. The majority are elderly, children, raped women; teenage mothers affected with all sort of predicaments such famine, AIDS and other disabilities.
After the M23 rebel uprising in November 2012, the IOM (International Organization for Migration) designed four large spaces into campsites: Mugunga 3 accessed regularly by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and others NGOs. The other campsites: Buhimba, Bulengo, and Mugunga 1 are considered as spontaneous sites, therefore not regularly visited by NGOs, only Doctors without Borders (MSF) maintain a presence and regularly monitor these spaces. The effort of WFP is very crucial in these zones because it provides the much-needed food to the population.
For half an hour, we drive through the only tarred fragmented road leading to the west massif of the Virunga, attempting to leave behind the Nyiragongo volcano feigning to be inactive. We are sweeping the bushy bumpy terrain with our four-wheel drive advancing toward the southwest shore of Lake Kivu. After more ten endless minutes, we arrived on this cleared rocky field covered with tents: The Bulengo camp for internally displaced people.
Soon I visit the MSF health centre in the camp; the only one for fifty thousand internally displaced souls. Children as well as adults cheers as we enter the camp. For this population, the MSF is the only source of hope, as other organizations rarely visit the area.
In the camp, people often sleep on mats laid on the lava stone, often with no mattresses. There are large tents where you find twenty to thirty households living inside with mothers, children and sometimes men, are crammed next to each other. MSF has provided several sheets to ease the life of families particularly, women and children. In the Bulengo camp, somehow life seems to catch up its breath as things around seems standstill.
MSF built the clinic in Bulengo to provide free health care to more than 40,000 people. To date, MSF has conducted more than 25,000 consultations in this camp, mainly for diarrhea and respiratory infections. People are mainly sick due to poor living conditions accentuated by poor nourishment.
“We don’t have food for ourselves or four our children,” said Malaika. “How can we be given medicine, in my case anti-retrovirus without adequate food”? She adds. Malaika is one of several women I have come to visit, to inquire about their living conditions, and their struggle to rebuild their life after surviving decades of the atrocities.
Malaika was among tens of thousands of Congolese who fled to Goma from the nearby region of Masisi. She is one of the several women victim of rape during one of the clashes between various armed groups. “After the attack of Nyabondo, we left the Masisi. We followed others from our village all the way here,” she said. “When I arrived here, I was weak and seriously coughing, it is at this clinic where I was diagnosed and treated. Now, I have regain strength but we still don’t have enough food’. Armed men she encountered in the forest on her way to Bulengo assaulted her.
Meanwhile, I learned that WFP suspended food distribution from January 2014 until the end of March, pending further investigations and statistics to start distributing in early April. After the study carried out, WFP concluded that merely fifty percent of the people living in the camp were vulnerable enough to deserve a food package. Nevertheless, that was still too many for the agency who cut off to 20 percent eligible people who needed humanitarian assistance. There are at least 60 households that have not received any of food packages and no humanitarian assistance from NGOs for six months, I learned.
It seems the humanitarian assistance in the Congo is been affected by the resurgence of new crisis in south-Sudan, Central African Republic, and Syria. This may explain the reason why WFP has failed to deliver the much needed food packages to the distressed population in IDPs campsites such as Bulengo.
While MSF has to stick to its primary mandate, which is to provide humanitarian medical assistance to victims of conflict. The organization has carried out vaccinations; it operates nutrition Centre for thousands of children, established the sanitation systems and supply safe drinking water in the site.
One resident of Bulengo asked, “Where are many humanitarian organization and charities that are dedicated to help the victims of the wars in North Kivu?” They are supposed to be active participants, not just passive spectators to the plight of the people surviving around the peripheries of the world. Because of lack of proper food distribution, the women leave the safety of the camp to collect firewood in the forest close by to sell to the market. “Armed men often stop us; some of us, we are raped and extorted of our small money from the market”. Says Devota, a woman treated at the clinic from her injuries. She was assaulted on her way to look for firewood. “Several women have disappeared while going for the woods in the forest, now there are many orphans in the camp,” she adds.
Meanwhile, the IDPs from eastern North Kivu supposedly must return home before the end of March 2014. Those who live west of the territory of North Kivu must return by the end of June, but in Masisi and Walikale there is total insecurity.
“Very well, but where to go back to and for what? To be killed and assaulted again?” Nathalie, a former primary school teacher asks me. “From January to today in June, what kind of food have we eaten in the camps? It is inhumane to let a crowd of thousands people without assistance,” she concludes. Nathalie tells us that her family members have not received any food in four months either.
IDPs cannot farm the lands around the camp because locals who occasionally exploit them own them. There are often clashes between the IDPs and the local residents around Bulengo. There are cases of abusive exploitation by landowners using defenseless mothers to farm their land. “I received one kilogram of beans per week for ten hours per day tending to the crop for a local land owner.” Arinatwe, 16 claims. She is one of several young mothers in the camp, she fled Kanyarushina to Bulengo. Today, she brought her toddler obviously malnourished to the MSF nutrition Centre.
The official version is that there is no need of feeding IDPs in DRC anymore. They say that the aid system was demeaning and made IDPs dependent on assistance. While they may have a point on this but it will not help the Congolese IDPs who are hungry or risk their lives trying to feed their families.
The UN and aid agencies should start planning longer-term assistance, and donor governments should respond with the necessary funding. They should join their effort to support “Doctor without Borders” in providing the necessary service attached to their mandate such food, water supply, shelter distribution and hygienic installations.
Left alone the dedicated staffs and volunteers of MSF have sometimes to work beyond their defined mandate therefore exhausting the already scarce resources to heal and bring about health recovery to a population already in disarray.
The women in Bulengo do not want to stay displaced endlessly. “There is no future here, we were better back home;” Natalie, the former teacher add. “We had our homes and our land. I use to teach children, but there is no more school, not alone children, we are left only with armed bandits to terrorize us.”
I am amazed and I admire the courage of these women struggling as they can to continue to “survive.” I wonder: how do they do? I try to understand but fail. IDPs Camps offer no future, moreover it should not be forever, and yet these people continue to live there, with no security and not really knowing where to go. They even manage to smile back at us when we meet them.
As we leave Bulengo, I reflect on the challenge of the MSF staff at the clinic. They are at the frontline of hope, they treat the disabled, do a regular follow up of the AIDS patients, support psychologically the women in distress. They are a group dedicated to provide free health care to everyone. They are also exposed to insecurity because people’s reactions are often unpredictable in the famished IDPs camps. There are no police or MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the DR Congo) personnel to protect them. Obviously until violence stops in the North-Kivu province of DRC, humanitarian actors must help the IDPs to the fullest of their capacity and ability.
This article was written as a part or supported by the project Glemte Kriser ( Forgotten Crisis by MSF Norway).
Raïs Neza Boneza is an author & freelance journalist based in Trondheim, Norway. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.