Fear and Desperation in North Kivu

This is the world of the displaced in North Kivu, a mesmerising sweep of volcanoes of lakes in eastern Congo, but also the home to human suffering on a catastrophic scale as violence continues to force thousands from their homes.

Fear and Desperation in North Kivu

By Marcus Prior

A city of banana-leaf shelters cascaded down the hill to a stream, peppered with people and humming with activity.

The stream ran brown with mud and who knows what else. Kneeling, a young woman coaxed some of the filthy water into a plastic container. A few yards away, another woman washed herself. Just a little further on, human faeces floated and boiled in the afternoon sun.

There are no tarpaulin sheets to shelter from the rain here, no blankets to stave off the bone-chilling night, nothing but the hard-baked earth for a bed. And in every knowing pair of eyes is the haunting of fear.

This is the world of the displaced in North Kivu, a mesmerising sweep of volcanoes of lakes in eastern Congo, but also the home to human suffering on a catastrophic scale as violence continues to force thousands from their homes. The ‘camp’ is at Bambo, high in the green hills above Virunga National Park, where gorillas still live in the mist.

On the hill opposite, a battalion of Senegalese soldiers in UN-blue baseball caps stand watch. They regularly have to warn armed men away from the camp. Their protection is the reason at least 8,000 people have fled to Bambo.

Since the start of the year, and despite a peace agreement agreed in January, clashes involving several militias as well as the Congolese army have prompted more than 100,000 people to run from their homes in fear, bringing the total number displaced in North Kivu since March 2007 to over half a million. New camps have sprung up almost overnight - in total, there are now 850,000 displaced people in the province, out of roughly a million across eastern Congo.

It is a disaster of epic scale, and yet its victims suffer almost unnoticed. Despite enormous logistical challenges and physical risk to personnel, WFP and its NGO partners are getting food to these new camps. If they have nothing else, at least they have something to eat. But the needs are enormous, and the situation has been exacerbated by a shortage of food which has prompted WFP to cut supplies in some areas in order to provide full rations to those that need them the most.

At a food distribution perched on a hilltop outside the town of Nyanzale, we met of Uwizeye Sukugabanye, a mother of two young children, the younger of which was clearly very ill. She also cared for two others, children of relatives now orphaned by the war. They all shared a tiny ramshackle shelter, which also served as a kitchen. They had arrived in Nyanzale only two weeks previously.

“When the soldiers attacked we ran – there was firing everywhere. People were hit and killed, others were seriously injured. Houses were being burned,” she told us. “I walked for two days to reach here.

As more and more people run for their lives, some for the second or even third time, health and nutrition conditions are deteriorating. Malnutrition rates are almost universally alarming in eastern DRC, well above emergency levels in most areas. It is one of the worst places in the world to be a child.

It does not even require violence and displacement for children to suffer terribly. In a nutrition centre in Goma, the provincial capital, we met three and half-year-old Bayanga, her arm broken in a sling, and the rest of her tiny body heaving with slow, painful, severely malnourished breaths. In her home village near Walikale things are peaceful, but there are no real health facilities.

Like Uwezeye in Nyanzale, her mother Janet had walked for two days, and then spent what little she had on a bus ride into town. Relatives are helping her maintain her vigil with Bayanga, but rising food prices in town are making even that a stretch.

“I don’t know what my child is suffering from, but she is unable to walk,” she said. “I tried to get her to crawl in the hope that she could stand and walk again but there was no improvement. A few days ago he fell sick and that is when I decided that the only option left was to bring her to Goma.”

The downward spiral in eastern Congo was not expected. Elections in 2007 were supposed to be part of a healing process, but the wounds remain open and infected. The new needs caused by the ongoing conflict mean that WFP now requires an additional US$147 million for its operation until the end of 2009, bringing total needs for the next twelve months to US$120 million dollars.