DR Congo

DR Congo: Evacuated for one day

Originally published
The Caritas staff member, Alexander Bühler reports from the city of Goma in the middle of Congo's conflict area

Goma, 9 November 2008

On Friday, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) arranged the evacuation of all international aid staff from the conflict zone. The Director of Caritas Goma brought me by jeep over the border to Rwanda, along with staff from Caritas England (CAFOD). The drive over the border took just 10 minutes but is far enough to be outside the immediate danger area.

OCHA recommended the evacuation after violent combat erupted in Kibati between the Congolese Army and Nkunda's Tutsi rebels. United Nations representatives feared that Army Soldiers would attack civilians and loot the city during withdrawal through Goma. Fortunately, the MONUC peacekeepers safeguarded the city from this very real threat.

The conflict is becoming more complex. Of the troops involved in these combats, 50 military observers and 200 soldiers from Angola were fighting on the side of the Congolese army. There is danger that the war will attract further international participation and that the whole central Africa region could explode in conflict.

Goma, 7 November 2008

Today, a Caritas support convoy should have set off for the refugee camp Rutshuru but the trip was called off due to the worsening security situation. The staff is frustrated. Yesterday, the militia attacked a village near Rutshuru in a massacre that killed 50-100 people.

Another terrible incident occurred in the refugee camp Kibate which lies within the imemdiate area of a Nkunda rebels post. Panic broke out as the militia opened fire on a passing aeroplane. Masses of people ran harum-scarum fearing for their lives.

There are always new refugee pathways with endless amounts of displace people in search of safety. Stories of attack, rape, murder and looting are commonplace.

It cannot often be determined who is fighting against whom or which of the marauding gangs is responsible for an attack. The Mai-Mai militia, for example, are civilians by day and by night form a kind of militia group to fight Nkunda's rebels.

One thing is clear: the refugees are suffering and hungry. Provisions are constantly decreasing and that affects everyone including us here at Caritas Goma.

Goma, 6 November 2008

The city of Goma has seen no fighting for one week. This is reason enough for the inhabitants to dare to wander the streets again. Dealers sit in front of their stores and business is building up. Somehow, life must go on.

Outside Goma, reports of renewed heavy fighting are keeping us in the city. The Caritas colleagues were handing out food in the city refugee camps today which had been supplied by the World Food Program.

I drove through the city with confidence on the back of a motorcycle taxi. I have known Roger, the driver for a year. He chauffeurs me every time I visit Goma. Today, he had fixed a Caritas flag to his motorcycle "thanks to stone throwers" he explained. "People can mistake you for a Monuc (UN peacekeeper) and nobody speaks well of them." Like the most here in Goma, Roger is relatively unperturbed. Fighting has been a daily occurrence since 1996. When 7 days in a row pass by without fighting in the city, life becomes almost normal again.

Goma, November 5, 2008

Today, violent conflict erupted between the militia and government forces in the region of Rutschuru. The way to the refugee camp Muguna was not directly affected so I could drive there. The situation is devastating. Last week, the camp was looted by government troops. The soldiers had emptied out the entire supply store taking with them tarpaulins, blankets and food. Fresh supplies had arrived in the meantime but were again running out. The people were hungry and malnourished, therefore susceptible to illness. Cholera has already claimed its first fatality. What is of immediate importance is the supply of food.

The new arrivals in the camp will be registered weekly and only those who are registered receive assistance. There are simply too many to process at one time. Assistance comes in the form a tarpaulin, with which one can build one 3m² shelter, and a ration of food. The ration per person for ten days is 50g salt, 330ml oil, 1.2kg beans and 4kg flour.

As I mentioned, this is only for those registered. At the very least, the supplies of drinking water are somewhat guaranteed. No one can definitely say how many refugees there are altogether but it is clearly over 1 million.

Goma, November 4, 2008

The city is struck by an incredibly tense atmosphere today. The militia of the Tutsi General, Nkunda can march in at any time and take over the city of Goma. While more and more UN peacekeeping forces are being flown in, the rebels still remain strong. With each helicopter that passes overhead a wave of fear sweeps the city.

The refugee situation in the city is worse than the outlying areas. People are scattered all around in makeshift camps and buildings are hopelessly overcrowded. In the school buildings where people are seeking refuge, there is a mere one latrine per 1000 people.

As soon as it is possible, I will set off to the refugee camp of Muguna. I was there the last time in March accompanying a delivery of food from Caritas Goma. At that time, I was struck by the incredible calm and composure of the refugees. They had such patience standing in the endless queues waiting to receive stamps and rations of food. The camp is erected on a bed of volcanic rock, the ground is black and the sharp stones bore into their bare feet. The majority of refugees sleep on the ground with only a thin blanket to cover themselves. Despite the difficulties, they have built tents from sticks and sheets of plastic, thatched mattresses and do what they can to provide for themselves.

I am very anxious to see what awaits us all tomorrow. The numbers in the refugee camps are multiplying rapidly. Camp Kibati I has grown from 5,500 refugees in June to 65,000 today. In Kibati II numbers have jumped from 597 to 135,000 over the same time period.

The most desperate need is food. The food supplies from Uganda are blocked and the only relief aid arriving at the moment is from Tansania over Bukavu. Isolated convoys on this path run the risk of attack. Assistance needs to be flown in but the distinct lack of money prevents this.

The flow of refugees is constant. Long lines of refugees stream in three directions; to the northwest, the northeast and south toward Bukavu. Caritas Butembo has attempted to create a route to provide supplies for the refugees.

Goma November 2, 2008

Altogether, there are 1.6 million refugees in eastern Congo. Roughly 150,000 to 250,000 remain around Goma and in the city itself there are several thousands. Those still living here are completely exposed as a regular route to bring supplies into Goma is not possible.

Today, I have seen three of the many refugee camps; including one orphanage with 800 refugees and a compound from two parishes, where between 1000 and 1500 refugees live. The hungry and weak refugees had fled here with only the clothes on their back.

The situation is dreadful; there is no supply of medicine, 800 people share one water tap, the latrines are overflowing and hygiene is virtually nonexistent.

There is only enough food for four days in the compound. It isn't clear whether humanitarian aid will reach here before that time. The scarcity of food is causing a dramatic hike in prices. The cost of one bag of peas increased from 60USD to 100USD. Two tankers of water, the required amount to supply 800 refugees, costs 500 USD

200 people are crowded together in one 40m² refugee camp. There are scores of children in the camps and new babies are being born daily. The rainy season is cold with the temperature currently at 13 degrees. Illness such as respiratory disease, diarrhoea, fever and meningitis are spreading. In one camp in Kibati, 17 people have died in the past three days and Goma has reported its first cases of Cholera.

The 40 staff of Caritas Goma are currently working to organise additional accommodation to shelter the refugees. Essential relief cannot be given due to the lack of humanitarian aid, water, food and medical supplies. The Caritas staff are mobilising themselves but are clearly traumatised by the violence.

There is an imminent danger that the city will be taken by Nkunda's forces.

Translation - Olivia Simmons