Clock ticks to hunger, sickness and death

Helen O’Neill, of Médecins Sans Frontières, describes the deteriorating situation in Congo and stresses the need for the violence to stop, so the growing humanitarian crisis can be managed.

THE situation in the eastern Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo is rapidly deteriorating and it’s changing hour by hour.

Repeatedly displaced by conflict, the people I met in Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinics, in the camps or by the roadside were already sick, exhausted and frightened. Now, tragically, people are being forced, in their thousands, to flee for their lives yet again.

The country is in pieces after years of conflict and bloodshed and the health needs of the population are enormous. Our teams continue to provide independent emergency medical aid to people in towns and camps throughout the conflict zone, namely in and around Kitchanga, Masisi, Mweso, Nyanzale, Rutshuru and Kayna.

Last week, the MSF teams in the jungle villages of Mweso and Rutshuru were trapped in our two hospitals, listening to heavy shelling and destruction outside whilst providing life-saving medical treatment inside. At the weekend, intense fighting erupted around Rutshuru town, some 70km from the provincial capital, Goma.

Our team treated 80 war-wounded people and since then has been working around the clock to try to save the lives of severely injured patients.

One week there is a bustling village and the next week our mobile medical teams return to discover it’s completely empty. Thousands are on the move.

Families settle in inhospitable areas, many of them in the bush, where there is no chance of accessing healthcare. They build shelters out of whatever they can find and are completely exposed to the damp of the current rainy season and the cold of the Congo nights.

The violence is having a devastating impact. Malaria is endemic in the country, as is cholera, which increases whenever people are on the move or crowded into unsanitary camps. The harsh reality is that those children who managed to escape the violence this week could die over the next few weeks from the bite of a mosquito, simply because they lack access to medical care. The injustice of this is hard to bear.

The people I met are also hungry, as they can’t go to their fields to harvest. If you are out alone trying to get to your land you can be shot or raped. So, malnutrition is another very real concern. It’s also extremely difficult to find the displaced people, when we get information on their whereabouts we try to access them with mobile clinics.

Clearly, the situation is desperate. These people need immediate humanitarian assistance. They need medical aid, shelter, food and clean water — urgently.

We are sending extra international staff to support the relief efforts. However, the violence needs to stop.

The civilian population are prisoners in a humanitarian crisis not of their making, caught in a conflict that is stealing everything from them — their dignity, security, health, homes, livelihoods and ultimately, for too many, their lives.

* Helen O’Neill is operations adviser with MSF.

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