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Flight and survival
in North Kivu

 

Last October, as fighting raged in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Red Cross volunteers and their ICRC colleagues strove to come to the aid of some 200,000 civilians forced to flee their homes. Three of them describe their experiences.

 

“It was 1 November. After a very turbulent period, we were finally able to get to Kibati from Goma to bring relief,” explains Lucy, a young volunteer of the Red Cross Society of the DRC. “We knew that thousands of civilians, including many women and children, had congregated in this small camp for displaced people, which already existed at the time. But the reality was even harder than we expected. The new arrivals had nothing, absolutely nothing. No food, no proper shelter and, in some cases, not even water.”

All night long, torrential rain had battered the earth in Kibati, a village surrounded by two camps for displaced people just a few kilometres outside Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. In the early hours of the morning, under a leaden sky, Agnès* emerged fearfully from a makeshift shelter, shivering, terrified by what the day would bring. The shelter in question was nothing but a rain-soaked piece of cloth tied to the branches of a tree. Beneath it, a skinny little boy barely 18 months old was asleep on a pile of leaves. The mother sat by herself at the roadside, gazing bleakly at the youngster’s torn clothing, her second baby clutched to her chest.

Agnès and Lucy, both aged 24, had met at the entrance to the camp. Agnès, starving, exhausted and visibly traumatized, held herself apart from the rest of the crowd. Lucy was a member of the Red Cross team preparing to launch emergency assistance activities for displaced people in Kibati, starting with the basics — distributions of food, water and essential household items. A few days later, 50,000 displaced people in Kibati were to receive food rations, while the water-trucks began their daily rounds to deliver clean drinking water.

Victims of rape

The two women rapidly developed a rapport, and Agnès confided to the volunteer that she had been raped during the family’s flight. Bruised and rejected by her husband, the young woman had only one reason left to live: to ensure her children’s survival. “Agnès and her little ones by the road to Kibati, that’s the image that comes to mind when I think of these people’s suffering,” says Lucy with undisguised emotion.

The health centre on the outskirts of the camps houses a small construction made of plastic sheeting. Here, people who have suffered particularly traumatic experiences, such as sexual violence, are received in complete confidentiality. It is a counselling centre, a place where victims of sexual violence and other abuses can seek assistance. The ICRC is supporting 34 such centres in North and South Kivu.

“Our counselling centre was looted during the violence in October,” says Charlotte, another young Red Cross volunteer, with sparkling eyes. “In November, we had to start all over again from scratch.” Charlotte has dealt with more than 200 women like Agnès since she started out as a social worker. “After an assault, the most urgent requirement is usually of a medical nature,” she explains. “But we mustn’t forget that the victim often has invisible wounds — psychological wounds that take even longer to heal.

“When a victim comes to us, she is often shattered, on the verge of collapse. In such cases, we let her rest here. After that, she will probably go away, then come back the next day. The important thing is that she feels at ease. She also needs to understand that we will not divulge a single thing, neither her story nor her identity. In order to find a solution together, we have to build a bond of trust between us.”

Charlotte remembers another woman in Kibati: Patience,* a 37-year-old displaced woman raped in a field with her seven-month-old baby on her back. “That was what gave her the strength to fight tooth and nail against five armed men,” says Charlotte. “The baby must have fallen out onto the ground, and the mother found him later after her neighbours intervened.”

“She did not say right away that she had been raped, and I am sure she could not feel the bleeding wound on her head,” continues Charlotte. “The only thing that mattered was that she had found her child. She was so happy, this mother, despite her ordeal.” The volunteer concludes: “Patience was lucky. These stories generally end far more tragically.”

Lost children

Beside the counselling centre is a DRC Red Cross unit whose task it is to respond to another basic need: the restoration of family links. Displaced people go there to write messages to their loved onesseparated from them by the front line. Most people come there for other reasons, be it to submit a tracing request to find a child lost in the chaos of flight orto let it be known that they have found an unaccompanied child.

“It is one of the big problems that occur during mass displacements in our region,” explains Prosper, who has worked for the ICRC for 15 years. “When there are seven, eight, even nine children in a family, which is often the case, the parents have trouble keeping them all together and staying in contact with them in a fleeing crowd.’’ Prosper has a mobile phone whose number is known throughout North Kivu. The calls he receives often come from people with information about unaccompanied children.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the names of unaccompanied children registered by the ICRC have been broadcast three times a day on five provincial radio stations. Dozens of children have been reunited with their relatives thanks to these efforts. “The smallest ones, those who do not know their own names, are photographed and their pictures displayed in sites for displaced people throughout the province,” explains Prosper.

Near him, a tiny little girl is crying and hides her eyes every time the Red Cross volunteers try to take her photo. The displaced family that took her in christened her Grace, since they don’t know her real name. The skeletal child was found in a disturbed state next to the body of her father in a village ‘visited’ by armed men. The photo session over, Grace runs into the arms of her new mother, looks back at the volunteers and then smiles shyly at Prosper.

The victims of the conflict will bear the scars of these painful events for many years to come. Despite the violence and the insecurity, aid workers like Lucy, Charlotte and Prosper are doing their utmost each day to bring them a little comfort in the midst of the horror.

 


People flee after fresh fighting erupted around Kibitz village, 7 November 2008.
©REUTERS / STRINGER, COURTESY www.alertnet.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Children who lost their parents in the turmoil of fighting eat at the Don Bosco centre in Gama in eastern Congo, 20 November 2008.
©REUTERS / FINBARR O’REILLY, COURTESY www.alertnet.org

 


 

Olga Miltcheva
Olga Miltcheva is ICRC communication delegate in Goma
* Names have been changed.

 

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