Conditions Worsen in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

The headlines emerging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2007 paid scant attention to the humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in the eastern province of North Kivu. More than a year after the first democratic elections in decades which were supposed to bring stability to this conflict-ridden region, fighting between armed groups has continued in North Kivu. Supported by MONUC, the UN force, the government is now in open combat with the forces of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda.

A number of different groups such as the Mai Mai and the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) are involved in the fighting. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in the past year, many of whom have been displaced multiple times. The displaced are often forced to hide in the forest, with little access to food or basic health care and under constant threat of attack from the various armed groups.

With few avenues to receive health care, displaced Congolese are increasingly vulnerable to easily treatable diseases and conditions such as malnutrition, malaria, respiratory infections, and obstetrical complications. Outbreaks of cholera have struck Rutshuru and Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu.

MSF teams have reinforced their activities to try to meet the increasing medical needs, but fighting and insecurity make it difficult for humanitarian workers to deliver assistance to the population. Large areas remain inaccessible, with many roads simply cut off by the insecurity. One particularly disturbing aspect of DRC's conflict is the alarmingly high rate of sexual violence. In North Kivu, MSF cared for more than 2,375 victims of sexual violence from January through October 2007.

In the DRC's Ituri district, the setting of conflict between different armed groups from those operating in North Kivu, 150,000 internally displaced people are still unable to return home. In a state of utter destitution, they remain vulnerable to exploitation and assaults. Through the Bon Marché hospital in Bunia, capital of the Ituri region, MSF has treated 7,400 rape victims over the last four years. More than one-third of these people were admitted over the last 18 months. MSF also responded this year to a number of disease outbreaks in other provinces, including an epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in southern West Kasai province.