DRC crisis: Helping people in a conflict zone

Aaron Brent
Internally displaced people carrying their belongings along a roadside in the Kasai region

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most challenging places to deliver aid. Not just because of the brutal conflicts that have been raging for decades, most recently in the provinces of Kasai. It is also a huge logistical undertaking to reach affected areas in a country that is the size of Western Europe yet has very few paved roads.

After several days of travelling, the CARE DRC team and I have finally arrived in Mbuji Mayi, where we will train local medical staff on how to support survivors of sexual violence, not only with immediate medical care but with psychosocial and legal support as well.

Civilians caught up in conflict

Civilians caught up in this conflict can lose everything: their homes, their livelihoods, their dignity, and far too often their lives. Unfortunately, for many women here in the Kasai Oriental province, rape and sexual abuse is an all too common reality since the conflict started.

In a recent CARE study assessing the situation in the Kasai Oriental province alone, all 889 participants said that they know someone who had experienced sexual violence or that they had witnessed sexual violence during this conflict.

At the health centre Mbuji Mayi town, we find a group of nurses and the doctor in charge waiting for us. The nurses have all travelled several hours by foot, bicycle and motorcycle from their outlying villages to meet us here. For the next six days Dr Martin, CARE’s Sexual Reproductive and Maternal Health specialist, and his colleagues, a lawyer and a psychologist, will be training them on the provision of care for survivors of rape and sexual violence.

Local people play a key role in helping others

At the same time my colleague Rose, CARE’s Gender Expert, is conducting training for community health Focal Points – the term for a network of mainly volunteers, located throughout the country in the remotest villages, who help to point people in villages in the right direction when they need medical care.

Their main task is to refer and encourage people to go to health centres. For this reason they are a critical part of the programme we are putting in place. Survivors of rape may not even know they have the possibility to get treatment and care that may save their life, and having someone in a village who can help them get to a health post is important.

The violence that has affected them all

During the training I listen to Rose talking to the participants who recall their experiences during the conflict and the violence that has affected them all. One person that stood out was Miphie Laya, the head nurse of the health centre in a small village near the town of Miabi.

She remembers that in October last year she started hearing rumours of conflict with houses being burned to the ground in the surrounding villages. Then, one day in November, militant groups arrived at the health centre around 10am and fighting began.

Many of the people in Miabi were scared and decided to flee into the bush. The militant groups threatened to burn the health centre but luckily they did not. For a week afterwards, no patients came, even though Miphie faithfully went to the health centre each day. Miphie recalls:

When the people fled to the bush they could not find anything to eat and suffered greatly. Several women which we at the health centre were serving with pre-natal care gave birth to babies in the bush with no medical care or assistance.

“At one point I had to hide myself, going back and forth between my house and the centre. Despite all this, I still kept coming to the centre to help patients who were there, even spending the nights there.”

This was a very difficult time and my family was about to flee, but in the end we never did, because I felt I had to stay here and take care of people.

It was only weeks later in January and February that people came back to the village including displaced people from other villages.

The day the fighting started

During the training session, I talked to another woman, who didn’t want me to use her name for fear of retribution. She remembered the exact day the fighting started in her town: she witnessed two boys being shot.

She hid in her house during the fighting but finally decided to slip out and move to her parents’ house. “But even in my parents’ house, I didn’t feel safe,” she said:

One night at around 3am we slipped out of the house leaving all belongings and fled into the surrounding bush, where we lived for a month. It was tough to find things to eat during this time.

Finally, after several months they were able to come back to their house.

Hope, even in desperate situations

I am very impressed with all these accounts. Many of these brave colleagues are very poor and vulnerable but all are eager to learn and help their communities.

This is something I have learned over years of working in emergencies: there is always hope even in the most desperate of situations that would seem unfathomable in more privileged societies.

Planning ahead

David, the CARE emergency coordinator, and I spend the next day in town, attending coordination meetings and working out ways to get crucial medical supplies into town. Once the training for the medical personnel is over, we plan to stock each health centre with the medicine and supplies necessary to provide post-rape care to survivors.

Before we leave, we visit a local radio station in a nearby town, asking if they can help us send out radio broadcasts about sexual and gender based violence, so that women and girls learn where they can find help and support if they are affected. The staff in the radio station are very friendly and quickly agree to work with us.

Food, livelihoods, and resilience

Looking towards the future, the team also plans to contribute towards tackling the issue of food security. People’s fields were burned or pillaged when they fled and now they have missed the opportunity to plant for one or two agricultural seasons and may miss another – and there is already widespread malnutrition in this region.

We also plan to help the most vulnerable with cash grants that will allow them to attend to their immediate food needs for their families and buy the seeds and tools they need for another harvest. Using experience CARE has in the rest of the DRC, we will also help them establish small village saving and loan associations which will build their resilience and help them get through the hard times in future.

Helping people have access to water

Plans are also being developed to address water-related issues. We will do this through initiatives such as provision of water points, like boreholes with hand pumps, that are located close to villages so women and girls don’t have to walk long distances to fetch water. We hope to accompany all this by building latrines and hygiene promotion that will further cut down on disease and help alleviate malnutrition in the process.

Yet we are extremely short on funds. The DRC conflict happens outside of the news agenda and we receive very few donations to get our activities up and running.

My mind unconsciously pans over all the faces I have encountered since my time here began. It is only inspiring to see colleagues like Martin, Rose and David wake up each day with unwavering drive to serve their communities. Reflecting on conversations I have had, I pause on the last conversation I had with a young woman, Sady (not her real name), whose poignant but simple message begins to echo through these memories:

“In order to get water, I must walk about two and a half hours down to the river to collect water and carry it back to my house. Having easier access to water would make my life so much better…”

Just tell people in the rest of the world how much we are suffering here so they will know.

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Aaron Brent's picture

Aaron Brent is a Senior Humanitarian Team Leader for CARE International.