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200,000 flee new violence in eastern Congo

Commentary: International aid needed to help desperate refugees affected by the conflict.
Congo violence refugees 2012 6 26Enlarge
Esther and her newborn triplets seek refuge from the burgeoning conflict in eastern Congo. (Sinziana Demian / International Rescue Committee/Courtesy)

NTAMUGENGA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Squatting against a brick wall under the blazing afternoon sun, Esther slowly catches her breath. She walked just a few dozen yards from the doors of the health center, but she is already exhausted and deeply disoriented. Her triplets are fast asleep in her lap, unaware of the mayhem all around.

Released from the maternity ward just before noon, 34-year-old Esther has no idea what to do next. When she came to Ntamugenga to give birth three weeks ago, she was expecting one baby and a quick return home, where her family and neighbors would celebrate with banana beer and skewers of goat meat.

But the recent outbreak of violence in Congo’s North Kivu province has shattered her world. After giving birth to three baby daughters, she now has no home to go back to. Her husband and six children were forced to flee their village in the middle of the night; three of the kids got lost on the way, she has since learned, and have been missing ever since.

Esther’s family is among an estimated 200,000 people who have been driven from their homes in North Kivu by renewed violence since April. Tens of thousands more have sought refuge across the borders in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda. Substantial aid, from the Congo government and the international community, is needed to help the desperate civilians who are suffering from the disruption.

Although North Kivu has long suffered from armed conflicts, intense volatility and mass displacement, the past few years have been relatively calm, allowing many civilians to gradually rebuild their lives and communities. The latest crisis was triggered by the defection of several high profile army officers and troops, leading to fierce fighting throughout the region between rebels and the Congolese Army.

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In Ntamugenga and the deserted villages nearby, house attacks and looting have become the order of the day. Hut doors are turned into firewood and the belongings of those forced to flee are sold and re-sold at the local market.

Since the first waves of displaced people reached this area a month ago, the eight medical staff at Ntamugenga Health Centre have been completely overwhelmed. They now see about 160 patients daily, more than three times the usual number. Stocked by the International Rescue Committee with medicine and equipment, the health center has so far been able to offer free health care to all displaced people in need. But doctors here and at other clinics warn that with more people arriving every day, water supply and sanitation facilities may prove inadequate, causing hygiene conditions to worsen and making disease outbreaks more likely. Malnutrition, especially among children, is also on the rise, and the vast majority of displaced families have no source of income or access to nutritious foods.

The arrival of thousands of displaced has also caused increased hardship for the local population. As schools now house the displaced, classes are either canceled or moved to other locations, many miles away. The mountainous dirt paths in and around the village now swarm with armed men — increasing the vulnerability of everyone. Rapes and brutal attacks are on the rise, and women and girls are scared to fetch water or work the fields.

The International Rescue Committee is providing post-rape medical kits to the health center in response to the spike in sexual assault as well as psychosocial assistance for survivors. One of the latest patients at the health center was an 11-year-old girl raped by an unidentified armed man.

“We live in fear all the time,” says a woman who sells soap on the side of the road in Ntamugenga. “We cannot trust anyone, not even those who are supposedly here to protect us.”

With this latest wave of displacement, it’s estimated that some 2 million people in Congo’s eastern provinces have been uprooted from their homes by sporadic violence that has plagued their villages for years. The scores of new and old militias are both the cause and consequence of the crisis. And whenever there is an escalation in fighting, it’s the civilians who suffer. They are caught in the crossfire, targeted with brutal attacks, abuse, intimidation and extortion and susceptible to disease and hunger as conflict shuts down clinics and halts economic activity.

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Once again, there’s a humanitarian and protection crisis in the Kivus, requiring urgent attention and intervention. International donors and the Congolese government must step up and sustain humanitarian aid and ensure that humanitarian assistance safely gets through to communities in need. 

Alongside hundreds of other displaced, Esther and her three babies will now have to sleep on the bare floor of the village school. Her husband sent word that he’s searching for a host family to put them up and he is looking for any work he can find. At the moment, all that’s available for his children to eat is sugar cane and manioc porridge.

On Esther’s lap Barbara, Agnes and Dorothea sleep peacefully. The smallest one barely weighs three pounds. Her breathing is almost imperceptible; her fingers and toes are deep red and thin as matchsticks.

“We lost everything,” Esther laments, while slowly rearranging her baby daughters in the folds of her dress. “These babies came into the world at the worst possible time.” And she knows all too well things can get even worse.

Two men pass by, one carrying a wooden cross, the other a tiny dead body covered in a red blanket. “Another case of severe malnutrition,” explains the nurse who is following the small procession in the courtyard. “It could be me, or him, or her tomorrow,” says Esther, staring blankly at the ground.

Sinziana Demian is based in North Kivu where she is a communications officer with the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization.

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