DR Congo

A day on the ground in crisis-stricken North Kivu, DR Congo

News and Press Release
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By Jaya Murthy

UNICEF Communications Specialist Jaya Murthy has been on the ground throughout the latest round of violence and displacement in eastern DR Congo. Here, he reports on a day spent among the displaced.

KIBATI CAMP, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 18 November 2008 - In the last two weeks, well over 100,000 people have fled their homes due to fighting and insecurity in eastern DR Congo. Over 35,000 are on the move as I write. In the last two and a half months, around 250,000 people have fled their homes. Some 1.1 million people in North Kivu - or 20 per cent of the province's population - are now in displacement.

We spent a day last week in the Kibati settlement for displaced persons, 9 km north of Goma, the provincial capital. Over 60,000 people have settled here since fighting intensified. Thousands of them have fled multiple times. Fleeing from conflict has become 'normal' in their lives.

Vaccinations for 13,000

As we arrive on Thursday, 13 November, we see hundreds, if not thousands, of people on the road. Most are displaced. They know that, security permitting, they are going to receive essential assistance today.

UNICEF and our partners are carrying out emergency measles and polio vaccinations for 13,000 children. Measles is a contagious disease that spreads very quickly when people are on the move. Hundreds of children's lives are at risk if it is not immediately contained.

In addition to the vaccinations, Vitamin A is being provided to help children ward off respiratory infections and other illnesses. Respiratory infections, the number-two killer of children in DR Congo, are likely increasing as a result of displaced children sleeping out in the open.

Safe water, sanitation and hygiene

Truckloads of clean water are arriving in the settlement - the only source of water for the population. Contagious water-borne diseases like cholera and diarrhoea (the number-three killer of children in DR Congo) are contracted from drinking unsafe water; cases of both have increased in the area in the last several days.

To further contain these diseases, hundreds of latrines are being built. Latrines are critical to containing excrement in concentrated areas.

Promotion of good hygiene is being increased, as well. Cholera and diarrhoea can be contained if people know that by washing their hands, they will greatly reduce the risk. Teams are circulating in the settlement, advising the population to drink clean water, use latrines and wash their hands.

Help with health and nutrition

To further reduce mortality rates, survival kits with essential household and emergency shelter items are being distributed to 15,000 people. So are blankets, clothes, cooking sets, jerry cans, soap and mosquito nets to protect against malaria - the number-one killer of children in DR Congo.

At a health centre, free medicines are available. Hundreds of children and mothers have received treatment for illness and injury. Nurses report cases of malaria and other illnesses, noting that these are increasingly fatal for children who are malnourished.

High-energy biscuits given out to over 15,000 children a week ago may have helped limit the rise in malnutrition. Even so, a nutritional screening just completed identified over 100 malnourished children, who are receiving urgent assistance.

Meanwhile, special teams are trying to identify children separated from their parents and families. Over 150 separated children - children as young as two - have been identified in the last three days. They are being placed with foster families as family tracing is carried out so that the children can be reunited with their relatives as soon as possible.

Education hindered, children cope

In a wooden building, a group of village leaders, teachers, parents and UNICEF colleagues are discussing how to free up teaching space in schools that are being used as shelters for displaced persons and as camps for soldiers. Unless a solution is found, education will continue to be temporarily suspended or hampered for thousands

Just outside of one school, about 20 children are singing and dancing to the rhythms of a drummer. This is clearly therapeutic and brings them comfort. Another child is quietly studying on a bench a little further away. Others still are playing football with a bundle of plastic bags tied together.

Children are finding their own ways to cope.

Survival of the innocent

While these interventions continue, the front line remains only a few kilometres away. Insecurity - and another possible flight from violence - is just next door. In order to provide better protection, people here will have the option of being relocated to camps on the other side of Goma.

However, we remain extremely concerned about the tens of thousands of others people who UNICEF has yet to reach due to continued fighting. As soon as the slightest window of access opens, we and our partners will go in with all of the same and even more emergency interventions offered in Kibati.

The survival of the innocent children and women caught in the middle depends upon it.