Emergency Air Evacuations in the DRC

The humanitarian community in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) relies on the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service’s (UNHAS) to reach remote areas, support national disaster responses, as well as carry out emergency evacuations of humanitarian aid workers. 

The deterioration of the security situation in eastern Congo since the beginning of 2015 has been a source of serious concern for humanitarians in the field. There are 2.8 million internally displaced people in the DRC, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world: the needs are immense and humanitarian workers are often required to access deep-field locations to assist the most vulnerable. 

There are more than 40 armed groups active in the DRC and they regularly carry out attacks against civilians. Recently, these attacks have started to target humanitarian workers, including the UN. Armed groups move across large areas and their actions are unpredictable; humanitarian workers sometimes find themselves in a dangerous predicament and in these situation UNHAS is often called to the rescue.  

“Security and medical evacuations are in integral and necessary part of our services, in the same way as the daily transport of passengers of essential cargo for humanitarian assistance” says Sandra Legg, UNHAS’ Deputy Chief Air Transportation Officer, based in Goma.

Photo:WFP/Leonora Bauman

Extreme situations require swift responses

"We intervened within 24 hours to bring the victims to Goma and the body of the deceased to Bukavu"
During a mission in November 2014 to a village called Katwe in North Kivu, staff members of an international non-governmental organization were ambushed 200 kilometers away from their base and robbed of all their belongings. Fearing a second attack and aware that another humanitarian was killed in the same area some time earlier, they called for help. Not far away at about the same time, a humanitarian worker part of a different organization was also ambushed.

He was killed and his body left by the road. “After getting the call from the two NGOs’ focal points, we intervened within 24 hours to bring the victims to Goma and the body of the deceased to Bukavu," says Legg.

Such extreme situations require a quick and flexible response, especially for remote and isolated locations such as Katwe. It is under these circumstances that UNHAS deploys its helicopter, one of six aircraft in its fleet in the DRC. 

Photo:WFP/Leonora Bauman

Fighting Ebola in the Jungle 

Back in September 2014 when an Ebola epidemic was declared in the village of Boende in Equateur province, UNHAS and its partner Aviation Sans Frontières-France became critical actors in the national effort to prevent the disease from spreading. The isolation of this small village in thick equatorial forest somehow helped contain the virus from reaching other areas. However it created some serious logistical headaches for responders. 

During the four months of the outbreak, UNHAS operated 21 flights, carried 187 passengers and 27 tons of medical, logistics and telecommunications cargo. There is no doubt that, without this robust air support to the epicenter of the outbreak, the disease would have not been contained. 

Photo:WFP/Leonora Bauman

A common humanitarian services critical for the DRC 

The DRC is known for its limited infrastructure including roads and bridges. Sometimes it can take a full day to travel just a couple of hundred kilometers. WFP and UNHAS have been providing air service solutions for the last six years to enable humanitarians reach vulnerable people wherever they are. The fleet consists of five planes and one helicopter based in Goma. The overall air operation is made possible by the generous support of donor countries including Sweden, the United States, Canada, Germany, Belgium, Japan and the United Kingdom.
In 2014 alone, UNHAS transported 42,481 passengers and 483.64 tons of cargo. It also carried out the emergency security evacuation of 25 people as well as the medical evacuation of 11 others. 

Learn more about WFP's operations in DRC by visiting our country page or the recnt photo-story on Exposure.