Violence and armed clashes continue to cause immense human suffering in several provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries, due in large part to conflicts that have torn the country apart for much of the last 20 years. People here have faced unimaginable hardship – including displacement, separation from loved ones, exposure to disease, and the ongoing risk of injury or death due to violence.
In the province of South Kivu, people live with a deep sense of insecurity. According to a report published by UNICEF, more than 40,000 people – including 7,500 children under the age of five and more than 1,500 pregnant women – fled villages in the territories of Uvira, Fizi, and Mwenga between May and August 2020 due to the intensification of inter-ethnic conflicts. UNICEF estimates that 10 health centres were looted and rendered unusable during that period, while 18 others were abandoned by medical personnel fleeing the violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these difficulties.
Florence Hamuli, a 19-year-old mother of two, says: "I was pregnant when I fled fighting between the armed groups in Bijombo. I walked for two days to get to Masango, where I am staying with a host family. My husband was killed and my house was burned down with all my belongings. I was desperate and I didn't know what to do about my pregnancy because I knew I wouldn’t have the means to pay for my care on the day I was to give birth."
Inaccessibility and insecurity have precluded all but a handful of aid organisations from helping here; materials must be carried in and out due to the lack of transport options to the region. In response to the area's needs, the European Union's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations is supporting activities that a consortium of organisations, including People in Need (PIN) and Doctors of the World Belgium, has been carrying out since August 2020. Nearly 23,700 beneficiaries are being assisted by the project, including approximately 110 survivors of sexual violence and 3,929 displaced people.
As part of that project, PIN provides life-saving medicines, high-nutritional supplements to treat malnutrition, healthcare materials, and other medical equipment. Besides, the important part of nutritional inputs PlumpyNut have been donated by the UNICEF DRC to cover the project needs.
Ethnic conflict and isolation cause permanent vulnerability
Life in the health zone in the Uvira highlands is characterised by ongoing ethnic conflict and human rights abuses, such as the burning and looting of homes, murder, sexual violence, and the destruction of livestock. The most vulnerable and most affected populations are pregnant and nursing women, as well as children under the age of five.
Since 2015, relations between the two communities living in the area have deteriorated significantly. Aggravating factors include the struggle for control of economic resources, the search for pastureland, alliances with foreign armed groups operating in the area, the weak presence of state authority, the geographical isolation of the region due to its rugged terrain, and the challenging climatic conditions, all of which leave the population in a state of permanent vulnerability.
A nurse at the Masango Health Centre explains: "We live every day at war here, and things can change at any moment if the rebels decide to do so. A few months ago, this health centre was closed due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment; women were giving birth at home or in the bush with the risk of being infected or dying during childbirth. It is thanks to this emergency project of free care that we have relaunched activities in this structure. We are being supported with essential medicines and medical equipment by the consortium that includes PIN and Doctors of the World Belgium.”
Hamuli is a project beneficiary; she believes it is critical to support the health structures that are still functional. "The free care project started when I was already full term. I came to the health centre and gave birth to my child with the assistance of the project staff assigned to our structure. They made me aware of the benefits of breastfeeding and encouraged me to bring my child to the centre in case of illness or complications. I have respected the advice I was given.”
The humanitarian crisis in the Uvira highlands has recently taken a backseat to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. In South Kivu province, 318 cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed since April 2020. To prevent the spread of the disease, patients who come to the health centre must wash their hands and wear masks during treatment.
Augustin Bashombana, another nurse at the Masango Health Centre, says: "Although there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 here yet, the patients who come for treatment are also sensitised on the existence of the pandemic. We even show them how to make masks with the help of community workers. We have handwashing facilities at the centre, and we teach patients about social distancing with posters provided by PIN.”
Zawadi Izabayo, People in Need DRC Communication Officer