DR Congo

Conflict in Ankoro leaves hunger and displacement in its wake

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The recent conflict in Ankoro in southeast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), renowned for being the birthplace of former President Laurent Kabila, has left thousands of people without food or shelter. It is estimated that 8,000 families have been affected by the conflict.
According to World Vision, 3,000 homes were looted and burned by soldiers during the conflict. In the south part of the town, where most of the destruction occurred, a scene of despair surfaces. Grass has grown to surround the devastated homes in the months since owners abandoned them in a wave of fear and confusion. Some people will never return.

These pockets of devastation are constant reminders of the recent conflict, which claimed over 100 lives. People living in Ankoro fear that fighting may break out yet again. This will have severe consequences for food delivery to the region.

"All of a sudden we heard gunfire. When we came back to our houses, we found they had burned down," says resident Kabange Koy who fled his home with his family when the conflict erupted. "We had no time to take anything with us," he says.

Many families fled into the surrounding jungle where they scavenged on anything they could find. According to one resident, there are still people living in the bush. "Some people are too afraid to go back to their homes," says Kabange.

Local residents and internally displaced people who fled to Ankoro from surrounding areas have set up temporary shelters alongside each other. Before, it was the local people who had land, who had tools and a place to call home. Now, few people - whether local or foreign - can claim not to be affected by hunger and displacement.

Families were scattered throughout Ankoro town and surrounding villages over the course of the conflict. According to one MONUC observer, it has taken three months for people to return to the town, which was completely abandoned last year.

Health conditions in Ankoro are very poor. It is estimated that 40% of children aged 0-5 in Ankoro town and surrounding areas are malnourished. Child malnutrition is a serious problem in Ankoro. Household food availability is very low and parents, weakened by malnutrition themselves, are unable to work. Children are not able to get essential nutrients in the critical early stages of life.

Most families I spoke with only ate one meal a day if they could find food. "All the children in this camp have grown thin because of the food situation," says Nsange Area, a local resident in Ankoro. Nsange was shot in her leg by one of the soldiers. One of her children was killed.

Nsange's children are trying to find work, as she is debilitated by her leg injury and can no longer farm. Before their house and field were destroyed, the family was able to live off the harvest they produced. Now they have to go to the hospital nearby just to get a little porridge. One of Nsange's neighbours shows me what they are eating that day: a small portion of boiled cassava leaves. Nsange has set up a temporary shelter with her children, but she says she has no sheeting for the roof. She says her children are cold at night because they have no blankets. Before they moved here, they were sleeping at the abandoned schoolhouse.

Many of the families I spoke with complained that their children were getting sick. "The children are sick very often," says Kabange Koy. He mentions malaria, measles and piles as common problems. Kabange and his family stay with 30 other people in a small compound where sanitation conditions are poor.

40-year old Mwamba Ngwalo says that his four-year old son was sick with cholera for a month. Families living here do not have access to safe water. Many children also suffer from schistosomiasis, a water-born illness that can lead to anaemia.

There is only one general hospital in Ankoro that targets at least 225 000 people. The hospital receives 20 to 30 cases of severely malnourished children a day. But many people who are living in the surrounding areas cannot access the hospital, which also does not have a vehicle to go to them.

The hospital is completely run-down. Women are sitting on the floor of the paediatric ward, since soldiers stole all the mattresses. The hospital lacks basic medical equipment. The medical laboratory only has one microscope and it is very old. The surgery theatre also lacks equipment. The staff are paid irregularly. "We are working in very harsh conditions," the hospital administrator tells us.

The hospital receives about 600 consultations a month. The main health complaints are malaria, anaemia, respiratory infections, measles, water-related sicknesses and malnutrition. According to Colleen Taylor, Nutritionist for World Vision DRC, any slight illness can be fatal in a malnourished child, whose defences are very weak. World Vision and Medicine Sans Frontieres (MSF) have been assisting the hospital, but MSF will be leaving at the end of February.

Education is also a serious need in Ankoro. One of the schools in the south was looted and burned by soldiers. Doors and windows are missing and the walls are covered in graffiti. Students have to sit on the dirty floor because there are no school desks. "Conditions are very difficult," says headmaster Benard Mukalay. "The teachers haven't been paid. It is difficult to get school supplies, even chalk. Parents have no money to pay school fees." Many students have not returned to school since the fighting broke out. Now, many children have to stay at home to help their families.