Monday, April 20, 2009

The More Things Change...

It is strange for me to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo after just a couple months away and witness what has changed and what remains the same.

Over more than a decade in DRC, an estimated 5.4 million people have died as a result of ongoing conflict and disease, and millions of others were forced to flee their homes. It is often dubbed the deadliest war in modern history. While much of the country stabilized following a peace accord and subsequent elections in 2006, hostilities among government forces and the numerous rebel groups in the eastern sliver of DRC have persisted. The situation worsened in late ’07, causing almost a million people to be newly displaced.

In recent months, violence in the most volatile areas in the north, like Masisi and Rutshuru, has eased slightly. But the displaced are still streaming southward into the camps outside Goma. These seven camps where International Medical Corps is operating are bursting at the seams.

The last time I was here was in January. As we drove down Sake road, about eight miles outside Goma, I had noticed a few dozen bright yellow tents dotting an open field, about a mile from three of the largest displacement camps, called Mugunga I, II and III. Today, those tents number about 500, which translates to around 2,000 people. It’s become a small, ``splinter” village, suddenly transforming the landscape.

One thing that does remain the same here is the spectacular, verdant land, filled with banana trees and tall grassy fields stretching toward Lake Kivu. But another is the suffering of the people who live on this land – people who have escaped unimaginable violence and arrived in crowded camps with few belongings and fewer options.

Yesterday we escorted a large group of U.S. congressmen and embassy officials into Mugunga I camp to see what’s happening there, the care IMC is providing, and how they might be able to help. They were shocked by what they saw and heard.

Inside Mugunga I, home to 28,600, life is brutally, consistently tough. Conditions are cramped and unsanitary, the daily rains turn the black lava rock that covers the ground from nearby Nyiragongo volcano into a thick mud. Clean, safe water and nutritious food are scarce. The camp president tells us that 70 percent of the women are widowed because of the conflict. Rape and sexual violence remain rampant in and around Mugunga. Because women and young girls are generally responsible for collecting food, water and firewood, they become targets when they travel outside the camp to do so.

And we continue to treat children who are severely malnourished. One six-month-old patient I saw this week weighed about three pounds, her jaw sunken and her skin melting off her teeny bones.

Still, In the face of all this tragedy, there is something else, something lovely, that remains the same at Mugunga I: people working, playing and trying to live their lives as best they can with dignity and a sense for the future. As I walk through the camp the scene is as it was last time and the time before that: young men getting their hair cut at the barbershop in the sprawling market; a checkers game with bottle caps as pieces; the booming sounds of the local ``cinema,’’ where a video plays to a packed tent of people; women singing as they peel vegetables; the four elderly tailors who hold court in the market, perched at their Singer sewing machines, sharing stories; children shouting and laughing as they play marbles or soccer or jump rope. These scenes have remained the same on every one of my visits. This is daily life for the residents of Mugunga I camp – their home for who knows how long.

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