An aid worker's diary from Congo

By Helen Hawking
Helen Hawking in one of the camps for displaced people.

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Monday, October 27th

The team are training the hygiene promotion committees today in Mugunga camp today. The training is going well, but the team was called back into town early because of security concerns.

I wonder how many people died in the fighting over the last couple of days. The figure generally quoted of 5.4 million deaths (most due to the resulting lack of access to water and health services) due to the conflict over the last ten years just got bigger. The political history and current situation is very complex, with no simple solution.

We heard that the CNDP rebels have captured the Rumangabo army base and Virunga national park, which is home to the mountain gorillas, and today they attacked Kibumba, which is reported to be almost empty. The population of the town and the camps—around 30,000 people—has moved down to Kibati, 12 miles north of Goma. The Congolese government soldiers are fleeing, leaving MONUC [the United Nations mission in the Congo] to protect Goma. Many of the wounded are unable to get to the hospital.

The Mugunga camps currently have enough fuel to pump water until the weekend, but as there is a possibility that the security situation will deteriorate, so we're taking enough fuel out to them to last another week in case we get cut off from the camps.

Humanitarian agencies will need to get together tomorrow to decide how to act. Thousands of people demonstrated outside the MONUC base today, saying that the peace keepers are failing to protect the people here. We closed the office early. MONUC were told to stay in their base.

The MONUC commander has resigned.

Tuesday, October 28th

This morning we have a security briefing. The shops and banks closed yesterday and are still closed today. The banks have removed all the money; they would be a prime target if Goma did get attacked. Our staff tell us they feel safer when they have some money in the house to give to the soldiers if their homes are targeted. When I stopped on the way home to buy bananas the women wanted to charge me extra because they thought I worked for MONUC.

I slept through the events of last night. Riots in the prison, where seven people were shot dead, about ten were recaptured and an unknown number escaped. I feel uneasy that escaped convicts could add to the unrest here! A doorman at a nightclub was also shot dead last night when he stopped someone with a firearm from entering. The situation in Goma could be described as tense!

We left work early again today. Only essential staff will be coming in tomorrow. Three international organizations have evacuated to Rwanda. This evening we hear that MONUC has retaken Kibumba and the situation now seems to be under control.

Wednesday, October 29th

Today started as calmly as any other day. We went to the office as normal; there was less traffic and less staff, but otherwise it was a beautiful sunny day in Goma.

At 2:30pm, a message came over the radio that all NGO staff should remain in their bases. We immediately left the office, passing the gas station, which was full of Congolese army trucks filling up (then heading quickly in the opposite direction of the fighting). False rumors that the CNDP rebels had taken Goma airport created panic across Goma. MONUC have said they are protecting Goma as the Congolese government troops continue to flee. A vehicle, I think a taxi, lay on its side outside the hospital gate. I guess if you are going to have a nasty crash, that's not a bad place to do it.

All UN and international NGO staff are advised to go to the World Food Programme compound to plan a possible evacuation. I go home to pick up the bag that I packed last night (just in case!) and some food. As the afternoon passes and the sun goes down, the gunshots around the compound become more and more frequent. We are told that the fleeing army is looting town. I have never been this close to so much violence and gunfire. My mother phones, concerned; I hope that she cannot hear the fighting. I feel like we are a bunch of sitting ducks surrounded by armed troops. It is not safe to leave.

About 600 members of UN families, mainly women and children, are here with us. They take refuge in the large warehouse while we try, unsuccessfully, to fall asleep in the car. Before we settle down for the night, we hear that a ceasefire has been announced.

Thousands of the displaced are said to have fled to Kanyabayonga or to the Ugandan border. Oxfam will go and do an assessment to see what intervention is needed there.

Thursday, October 30th

Speaking to the public health team, they tell me that last night many people fled the camps where we work to hide in the fields. Nevertheless, there were still reports of rape and looting in the camps by the military. The health centers in the two Mugunga camps were reported to have been looted, though this has not been confirmed. Most people know someone who was killed in the violence last night in the town.

People continue to sleep in public buildings, with host families, and by the side of the road around Goma. We are busy planning how we can help them.

While the office in Goma remains closed, the staff that we have trained from the camps to pump and do water chlorination continue to do their work. The number of displaced people in the four Goma camps has remained stable—except for Mugunga 2, where some new arrivals are housed in large hangars—so our current water and sanitation provision is enough to provide for everyone living there. The water supply is fine and people in the camp continue to clean the toilets to stop the spread of disease.

But the army has set up four tents on the road to Buhimba camp; this is not good news for women there, who are often raped by armed men. I ask the public health team leader to ask the hygiene committee (made up of displaced people we work with in the camps) to broadcast by loud speaker the message that the women who have been raped have 72 hours to get to a health center to take anti-HIV medication.

Rather than spend another night in the car, international staff are temporarily relocated and spend the night in Rwanda.

Friday, October 31st

The EU has pledged to send forces to reinforce the troops here. The Congolese are hopeful that they will arrive soon.

Saturday, November 1st

Some of the team attended a meeting in Goma to discuss the current humanitarian situation. Official UN figures are suggesting that 100,000 people have been displaced in the fighting of the past week.

The information that the IMC health center had been looted appears to be untrue, although both the Norwegian Refugee Council and ourselves have had supplies we keep in the camps stolen. Generally the camps seem to be returning to normal, although people are afraid.

Monday, November 3rd

Despite the American elections, the situation in the DRC is still the second news story on the television. The report shows the UN aid convoy that went to Rutshuru, an area under CNDP rebel control. There is also talk of the people starving due to the food crisis.

Tuesday, November 4th

Despite the ceasefire, fighting continues in other parts of North Kivu, and although Goma is calm people are still nervous and afraid. The Prime Minister was in Goma today. We had a busy day planning our work and coordinating with the other agencies responding to the emergency in North Kivu.

Wednesday, November 5th

For some strange reason there was only one news item all day today... The US has a new president! Joy and relief are visible across the globe.

Today we started our monthly soap distribution in the four camps where we work. We give soap to over 64,000 people as part of our cholera prevention work. We have also been visiting groups of displaced people in Goma and Kibati just a few hundred meters from the front line, home to thousands of people who have fled their homes and camps to escape the fighting in Kibumba. For many of them, this is the second or third time that they have been forced to flee.

Tomorrow we will find displaced people who were already community hygiene educators in their villages so that we can form new hygiene promotion committees here. Thousands of displaced people are staying with host families, in public buildings on porches, and under the stars (and we are in the rainy season!). When I spoke to the displaced people about their health, the illness they all talked about was diarrhea, particularly in young children. It is important that we start our hygiene promotion.

Thursday, November 6th

Today I am going south west to Kirotshe to do a public health assessment. Our first stop is a small camp of just over 4,000 people.

This camp looks different from the others. The latrines were full, so the people borrowed tools from the village and have started digging new pits, but there is a LOT of feces that are hard not to step in when you use the toilets. Our first job here will be to form hygiene committees who will teach their peers about why hygiene is important and mobilize this community to keep their latrines clean.

There is no source of water in the camp, but there is a tap in the village nearby, although it does not provide enough water for everyone so people here go to the lake to wash. We will need to train the community to construct private bathing areas and create a new water source.

People tell us that some women have been raped when they go to collect firewood for cooking. Where ever we go we see armed men: in the villages, on the road by the camps. While we walk around the camp we hear shooting and shelling from the hills behind. People seem nervous but they live with this every day. A visit to the health center shows that four cases of cholera have been diagnosed here in the past week.

On the way back to the office we stop at the health center in Sake. They have run out of the intravenous dehydration fluids needed to save the lives of people with severe diarrhea, so they have to send patients miles away to Kirotshe. I will follow this up tomorrow.

Friday, November 7th

My day began with gruesome photos on the television of the bodies of people reportedly killed by CNDP rebels in Kiwanja. One woman gave the rebels the money they demanded but they still shot and killed her husband.

The public health team go out to Kibati to continue our work there, but they are forced to return to Goma by gunfire, which created huge panic amongst the displaced population there. Many were seen heading for the safety of Goma.

We are told by the UN to restrict movement and stay where we are.