The number of refugees around the world is increasingly making headlines, but what of the plight of the 38 million displaced people who have fled to another part of their own country? Jose Barahona, Oxfam’s Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), describes the suffering of displaced communities Oxfam works with in eastern DRC where conflict has been ongoing for the last 20 years.
I am in Pinga, between Walikali and Masisi counties, North Kivu, eastern DRC. Oxfam is running a humanitarian programme here providing water and sanitation to what we call ‘IDPs’ (Internally Displaced People).
IDP sounds fine, but what does it really mean? In eastern Congo IDPs are poor farmers who were living peacefully in remote small villages in the hills. They had few possessions: a small house which they built, some animals like goats and chickens, a piece of land where they grew their food and some tools and clothing. Their
ancestors were buried nearby.
One day, an armed group arrives, usually during the night. There is shouting and shooting, some men are killed, some women are raped, houses are burned, some boys are taken to be soldiers and some girls are taken as sex slaves. Those who remain grab whatever they can and run panic-stricken into the bush.
They walk to a village on a main road that they consider safe. They arrive there with almost nothing, and usually camp at the school. Then they are given a place where they can build small huts, which come ready packed. They have maybe a few cooking tools, maybe a hoe, some clothing, and that is all. Now, they are IDPs.
Imagine thousands of people arriving in a week to a small village where water supplies are already stretchedIDPs usually arrive in places where resources are already very scarce. Imagine thousands of people arriving in a week to a small village where water supplies are already stretched, and there are only a handful of scattered latrines. Not to mention the scarcity of land to grow food. Some of the new comers stay with families and relatives if they are lucky enough to have them. Others are forced to camp on a crowded patch of land.
This has been going on for the past 20 years in eastern DRC. While people are starting to move back to their villages in one place, in another fighting is increasing. There are at least 1.5 Million IDPs here and every week there are thousands of new displacements. Oxfam has rapid response teams deployed to as many places at a time as we can manage to provide water, sanitation and hygiene, and emergency food. Is it sustainable? Probably not, but what should we do? We must be there to provide some help to families who have lost the little they had.
We do this in a very difficult environment. Pinga is surrounded by armed groups. As close as 15 kms away lie villages that have been attacked and abandoned. The IDP camp is in the middle of hills and deep forest, ideal for armed groups to hide. Roads are horrible! If you wonder why it is expensive to work in DRC and why
we need so many cars, come and pay a visit to inland Kivu. Work here is tough, days are long and muddy, and there is nowhere to go to unwind. Our colleagues who live and work here for many months at a time are heroes.
To make things more difficult, in the last few months there have been several cases of kidnapping of humanitarian workers in North and South Kivu, including one very recently of INGO colleagues on the road between Oxfam’s programme in Pinga and Goma, the capital city of North Kivu. This is outrageous!
One of the leaders of the IDP families told me that more than 10 schools and health posts have been burned down by armed groups in the last few months. It takes years to get the attention of the Congolese Government to establish schools or health posts with a teacher or a nurse in this lost corner of Congo, and all that can be destroyed in a few minutes.
they are living under the constant threat of losing everythingThe peaceful people of eastern DRC have enough worries struggling to make a living out of cultivating their crops, but they are also living under the constant threat of losing everything, including their lives. And this happens all the time here. It’s difficult for anyone to make long term plans in this environment.
In a previous visit to the field I met an old woman just arriving at another displaced people camp. I asked her how many times in her life she had been displaced. She thought for a few seconds, moved her lips as if counting, and then with a very sad look she told me, “I don’t know, many times”.
We are calling on all actors to bring about a peaceful resolution, although it will be not be easy to achieve, after all this complex conflict has already been going on for over twenty years. But, until there is stability and peace we will keep providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the victims of this conflict, the IDPs in these remote corners of the DRC who have lost everything.
- Find out more about Oxfam’s work in the Democratic Republic of Congo
- Download our policy paper Secure Insecurity: The continuing abuse of civilians in eastern DRC as the state extends its control
- Read Raising women’s voices in the DRC: challenges and revelations
On the road in North Kivu. Credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam
Children use an Oxfam tap stand in Buporo camp, North Kivu. Credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam
Democratic Republic of Congo FARDC soldiers on patrol in North Kivu, Eastern Congo. Credit: Eleanor Farmer/Oxfam