Humanitarian agencies seek access in Congo amid cholera fears

by Julie Mollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 November 2012 17:30 GMT
UNICEF says it is on standby to deliver basic items and services for 60,000 people once the security situation improves. in eastern Congo

LONDON (AlertNet) – Clashes have uprooted at least 100,000 people in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, more than half of them children under age 18, according to UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, which said on Thursday it had delivered high-energy biscuits to meet the nutritional needs of 5,800 displaced children.

The agency says it is on standby to deliver such basic items and services as blankets, jerry cans, water and sanitation items for 60,000 people, and temporary schooling for displaced children, once the security situation improves.

“Humanitarian workers on the ground like UNICEF and other local partners are working hard under extremely difficult circumstances,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake in a statement. “We can do more if we get better access to those who have been forced to flee. We urge all parties to the conflict to respect international law so that humanitarian agencies can reach those affected by this conflict.”

The agency estimates that more than 1,000 children have been separated from their families as a result of the clashes.

Five hundred children in temporary care at the Don Bosco site in Goma are receiving food, clean water and medical care, UNICEF said.

Overcrowding and the rainy season have increased the threat of diarrheal diseases and cholera and four cases of cholera have been reported in Don Bosco, where 8,000 people have found refuge, it added.

UNICEF and its partners have increased chlorination in the Lake Kivu area, the agency said, and safe drinking water is being delivered by truck to sites where there has been a mass influx of new internally displaced people.

M23 rebels in eastern Congo, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, have rejected calls from African leaders to withdraw from the city of Goma, which they captured on Tuesday, and threatened to continue their advance until President Joseph Kabila opens peace talks.

Thousands of residents fled the rebel-held town of Sake, 25 km west of Goma, as government troops counter-attacked and trucks full of rebel fighters arrived to reinforceM23 positions.

Here is a round-up of aid agency activities in the area:

Kanyaruchinya camp, where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working, is now empty after around 60,000 people – many of whom had previously been displaced - fled in panic, the charity has said.

“The atmosphere in the city is tense, people are worried,” said Grace Tang, head of mission for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Goma. “The fighting that for months has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes elsewhere in the region has now reached Goma’s doorstep.” 

Thousands of people have reached the Mugunga III, Mugunga I and Lac Vert camps or headed south to camps in Minova and Kirotche in the neighbouring province, South Kivu, MSF said, adding that conditions in the camps are precarious.

MSF is providing health services, water and sanitation in Lac Vert and Mugunga I, and bolstering its operations with extra medical staff – including surgeons.

Staff at the charity’s Cholera Treatment Centre in Goma are preparing for an influx of new cases as tens of thousands of people arrive and set up camp in and around the city.

 Charity Christian Aid has urged the UK to promote the appointment of a U.N.-African Union special envoy to lead mediation to help resolve the conflict.

“With the current upsurge of violence and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation, there is a desperate need for the UK government to position itself clearly and to push actively for solutions for the current military and humanitarian crisis in the DRC,” said Chantal Daniels, Christian Aid policy and advocacy advisor for central Africa.

“We want the UK government to use its leverage and influence in the region, as well as a Security Council member, to invest in the development of a long-term stabilisation framework that addresses local, national and regional root-causes of the conflict.

Caritas reported that its staff is working full strength in the communities affected by the conflict to address humanitarian needs.

“The situation is calmer, but we're still uncertain about what tomorrow will bring," said Father Oswald Musoni, director of Caritas Goma.

Nov. 21, 2012: Aid agencies boost defenses as Congo violence spreads

The International Medical Corps (IMC), which has been working in DRC since 1999, said in a statement that it had evacuated its staff from Goma.

World Vision said it has temporarily evacuated its staff. The aid agency said it has suspended all programme activities in the area and that it is considering relocating its humanitarian operations to nearby Gisenye in Rwanda.

World Vision advocacy manager in DRC Dominic Keyzer: “We know from the recent practices of the groups involved in this latest fighting that unaccompanied children in this part of DRC are in immediate and real danger of forcible recruitment into armed groups.

“Children have nowhere to turn, we can’t get to them, and we are hearing reports of groups arming people around Goma. Local partners have seen armed people passing guns and ammunition to civilians this morning – including children aged 16-18. A former child soldier we have worked with in the past told us today: ‘I have seen some of my friends receiving weapons and going to fight — they are being told to go and fight the rebels and take their guns’."

Jesuit Refugee Services Great Lakes advocacy and communications officer Danilo Giannese: "We have evacuated nearly all our staff from Goma. Given the security situation, all our activities, including assistance programmes in the camps, have been suspended. However, our teams in nearby Masisi and Mweso are still in situ as the roads out of the country are too dangerous.

“We're particularly concerned about our local teams who are currently separated from their families in Goma. Fortunately, they've been in contact with their families and everyone is safe.

“The consequences of the ongoing crisis in Goma are especially acute for individuals living in particularly vulnerable circumstances, such as children, older people, those with disabilities and health problems. They are often unable to flee the fighting, find safe haven or support themselves."

Oxfam humanitarian coordinator in DRC Tariq Riebl: “Recent fighting risks pushing a serious humanitarian crisis over the edge. We know that so far 50,000 have been displaced and fear that up to 120,000 people could have fled in the last few days. Entire camps have been abandoned, and there are very few safe places for civilians to go. It could be that many will converge on Goma itself, a city with very few resources and not much space.

“With almost 2.5 million people now displaced across eastern Congo, this catastrophe needs the humanitarian and diplomatic response to be urgently stepped up."

Merlin programme coordinator Sophie Goudet: “Because people have fled, our first job is to find out where they have gone to. We will be searching schools, churches, football fields – any large sites and buildings. The health of people in DRC is extremely poor. The vaccination rates are low, infant mortality is high and malaria is endemic.

“Against the backdrop of DRC’s already fragile health system, this displacement means we are looking at a double crisis. That is why as of today we have activated our emergency response mechanism.

“Support staff for finance, admin and training, have been moved to Rwanda for the time being. Our senior management team and healthcare staff, however, will remain on the frontline because Merlin is a force for health and reaching people in desperate need is our business.”

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