Rainstorms, Lava and a Human Flood

DR Congo, February 27, 2008

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Laura Miller/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A displaced Congolese woman sits on a lava rock overlooking the sprawling, crowded Mugunga displacement camp. Photo: Laura Miller/Mercy Corps

I recently watched as the rain fell for hours over Goma. From the comfort of a house, rain in tropical Africa is spectacular, even magic. But for the thousands displaced Congolese waiting out the storm in their twenty-four square foot huts made of sticks and banana leaves, it is hell.

What's happening today in northeastern Congo is one of the world's ongoing silent disasters. Since August 2007, Mercy Corps has been here helping distribute food, water and critical relief supplies to the area's displaced families. You can pitch in today to help us continue that assistance.

Thousands of displaced families have been living in camps packed with makeshift shelters since 2006 — but most of the people taking refuge here came in the second half of 2007 to escape the fighting in the Masisi and Rutshuru areas, north of Goma. There are about 800,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in northeastern Congo today and, according to a recent survey, at least 5.4 million Congolese have died in this war. That's nearly seven times the number of people that perished in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.

Northeastern Congo has long been a place where violence and disaster have swallowed populations and cities whole.

A volatile land

Goma is a land of volcanoes and, when the weather allows, we can see from our house the Nyiragongo crater glowing at the northern end of the city. In 2002 the volcano erupted, adding a fresh layer of lava. There were three main veins, one of which cut the city and the airport in two. At the airport, the lava imprisoned a large plane on its parking lot. In the middle of town it swallowed people's houses and several buildings, including the cathedral and the main market. In downtown Goma, the street abruptly climbs five feet and half the front stores disappear underground.

It is very difficult to dig through lava soil to build the emergency water and sanitation systems that are necessary to prevent or control a cholera outbreak. My Mercy Corps colleagues told me about the overwhelming working conditions they experienced in 1995, handling the cholera epidemic with both limited water supplies and inadequate latrines. It must have been a terrible experience for all those involved. Now, I walk on the same lava stones whose sharp protuberances cut shoes and feet of families fleeing the Rwandan Genocide.

Some of the camps for this latest human crisis are built on that new layer of lava. This time, the movements of populations took place more gradually, unlike the human wave that entered Congo over the course of just a few weeks in 1994. The emergency water points, latrines, showers, rubbish pits, and communal infrastructures are in place. When a cholera outbreak started last October, it was quickly stopped by reinforcing hygiene practices and organizing communities' responses.

Now, our team is taking the hard lessons we've learned in the area around Goma and applying them to an even more isolated area — the town of Rutshuru, about 50 miles north.

Too little land, too precarious to farm

Rutshuru and its surrounding villages have seen the arrival of thousands of displaced Congolese over the last three months. As it is often the case in emergency situations, the IDPs arrived in Rutshuru on October 2007 and were placed in temporary camps. The local authorities thought it would be for a few weeks and then they would go back home. But, because of violence and uncertainty, they have remained here.

One of Mercy Corps' tasks in Rutshuru is to contribute to the water and sanitation infrastructure of the more long-term sites that will absorb these IDPs. We're building a piped-water system and other sanitation infrastructure for more than half a dozen displacement camps here.

Rutshuru used to be one of the major farming regions of Congo but, with the war, its agricultural production fell drastically and its linkages to markets throughout the country have been disrupted. Ironically — and perhaps providentially — today farming families depend on humanitarian assistance from the surplus productions of other farmers, thousands of miles away, to survive.

It is hard for any farmer to be deprived of land. When we arrived at the local hotel in Rutshuru to rent our rooms, there were a dozen individuals, women and men, held up by local policemen. They were displaced individuals who had been caught farming in the Virunga National Park, west of Rutshuru. It's against the law to cause any type of damages in the park and they had been arrested — a meeting has been scheduled in the hotel to decide their fates.

Some camps have enough space to provide for small farming plots. Unfortunately, with the recent influx of even more families into the area, as soon as a plot has been harvested it is repossessed to build shelters for newly displaced families. Displaced families say they wish they had opportunities to grow their own food, but the problem is lack of land, seeds and farming tools.

Local landowners have some available land to lease, but they charge from $10 to $20 per harvest, in addition to one bag (about 100 pounds) of whatever has been harvested. In normal conditions and on a typically sized plot, a single harvest yields about 3 to 4 bags of beans, corn or potatoes. The risk for a displaced farmer is enormous: if he or she harvests less than a bag, she still owes cash and crops to the landowner.

And so even trying to work the land to provide for family needs becomes a risk. Mercy Corps is helping displaced families establish small kitchen gardens to provide for some of their needs, but more land is needed.

Fetching firewood at a tragic cost

One of the biggest tragedies of this war is violence against women and girls. There are frequent and consistent reports of this throughout the camps, and fetching firewood for their families is one of the riskiest chores.

In just one camp where we work, there have been 70 cases of reported violence against women and girls since 2006, and five for the month of December 2007 alone. With no open land available, all trees are either on private land or on national park land; it is illegal to cut them.

Displaced families live on less than $1 a day. In the local market, a bundle of small wood sufficient to cook one meal costs about 20 cents. One bag of charcoal that will last a month costs $8 to $10. Unable to afford these costs, many women and girls go fetch wood wherever they can find it, but at great personal risks.

We asked men if they could go and fetch wood themselves so that women and girls would not be exposed to violence. Together, we discussed the possibility that they could organize themselves in large groups to dissuade attackers and protect women while they are collecting wood. "But they would not hesitate to kill us," the men told us. "We have nothing they would want."

In addition, since cutting wood on private or government land is illegal, IDPs usually undertake this activity individually and in secret, both to secure their source of wood and to reduce the risk of being caught by landowners or government agents.

Mercy Corps is addressing this issue as well, through teaching women how to build fuel-efficient cookstoves that use only a fraction of the firewood as traditional cook fires. It's an approach that has saved hundreds of women in Darfur, and will hopefully do the same here.

A generation without classrooms

The first thing one experiences when arriving at a displacement is the swarming of children around the car. They touch my arms with one finger, either to discover why my skin is light or how body hairs feel, and eventually a few of them capture my hands.

Only 35 percent of children living in Congo's urban areas go to school. Out here, it's a fraction of that fraction. In these camps very few parents have money to pay for the fees, uniform, and supplies it takes to attend local schools. The camps have no schools, and it is terrible to think that many of these curious children will never have the opportunity to realize their potential. They are like fertile, yet fallow fields in Congo's overcrowded violent lands.

One also wonders how change will reach this land, where generation after generation has known nothing but endless war and lack of opportunity. According to some international observers, the recent peace conference may be the successful historic opportunity this region of Congo has long needed to find peace. But when the weapons fall silent, the hard work commences and harder choices will have to be made than those made at the conference.

We need to think about how best to help the farmers, women, girls and children of this wounded country.

You can help Congo's displaced families strive to not only survive, but thrive by donating to our Emergency Response Fund today. Thank you for your support.