Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Returning to devastation

The other side of the Congolese elections

For several years, the population of Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been the main victim of the conflict between the Mai Mai militia and the government armed forces - the FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo) troops. Repeated displacement, sexual violence, killings, burning of villages and fields, forced labour, arbitrary taxation and restrictions on movement - were the daily routine of this population.

The population is now coming back to the Shamwana region after a long period of displacement in other villages or in the bush, where they frequently had to flee attacks from the Mai Mai militia. But what are they coming back to?

In the region around the village of Shamwana, the situation has begun to stabilise. For the moment, the government armed forces have left the area, and the Mai-Mai militia appears to no longer be active there. However, years of violence and deprivation have impoverished and traumatised a population that was already in a situation of extreme vulnerability.

Villages razed to the ground

Alongside direct attacks on the population, deliberate assaults had been made on the population's economic assets and livelihoods, plunging them into poverty and disease.

Most of the villages from the area also known as the "triangle of death" had not only been destroyed, but also entirely razed to the ground. In many places, only the presence of mango trees reveals that a village once stood there. When Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) arrived in the area in April of this year, the population trapped in the "triangle" was living in dreadful conditions: small grass huts where an adult could not even stand up inside were used as shelters; those newly arriving were forced to live in the same way. Inside the huts, people make fires to keep warm, running the risk of inhaling the smoke and setting them on fire.

Repeated displacement and restrictions on movement prevented the population from having access to their fields, and their markets. Means of survival remain extremely scarce. There is still some manioc, but little else. Other foodstuffs used to come from the north of the region, but due to the conflict, the lack of transport and poor road conditions, trade is impossible now.

Access to clean water is also an issue. Sources are rarely protected, increasing the risk for a cholera outbreak, as this disease is endemic in DRC.

The rainy season, for which the population have not had time to prepare, is now starting. It will only aggravate their already fragile situation.

More assistance needed

The state is absent in the area. MSF is one of the few actors present there, trying to provide the basics to this population: a health centre with MSF staff is in place in Shamwana, and on a weekly basis the team travels kilometres along bad roads to provide health care in villages still entirely isolated. Other projects started include distributing mosquito nets and putting in place a protected water source.

After having suffered from the abuses committed by the Mai-Mai militia and having been subjected to the oppression of the governmental military forces, the population is now obviously relieved: they are slowly coming back, starting to rebuild their houses with what is left, trying to cultivate again, starting petty trade, and above all they are smiling again. But there are so many things that they miss, and they will not be able to do it alone. Overall, the amount of assistance provided is still insufficient. The challenge now is to bring to this population the minimum standards of living they deserve.

At a time when the eyes of the international community are turned towards the elections in DRC and to the future development of the country, it is important to realise that the humanitarian situation is still dire and that the international community needs to take responsibility to protect and assist the population.