Inside A Congolese Displaced Persons Camp: Children Cling To Our Arms, Begging For Human Touch (PHOTOS)

02/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Australian journalist Helen Thomas was the first to ask the question. "Do you find it hard to believe that we are able to function here and do our work?"

We were wading through a literal sea of humanity housed on a volcanic landscape that mirrored Dante's Inferno. Children clung to our arms as if our limbs were the branches of trees. The doctor warned us to avoid touching, since disease was present in every snotty nose and dirty hand that reached for comfort. You cannot say no to the begging for human touch, and soon rivers of green, yellow, and brown fluids from runny noses cover arms and hands and clothing, and eventually you give up trying to clean it off. The stench is overpowering--13,360 adults and 7,000 children crammed into huts unfit for animals. It is a little over a week since Christmas day and it occurs to you that even HE was born into better conditions than this.


Miserable impressions flood the mind and you are soon overwhelmed and manage to hover above it all, recording images and sounds with cameras and recorders that do the job because there is no way you could ever remember all of this--or would want to. It is only when the writer comes to the page that the tears begin to fall.

The writer sits at the laptop and scrolls through thousands of photos of misery and the one that stands out is the kite made of plastic sheeting donated by the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and flown by the kid who was eager for you to notice his success with the tattered thing that floats on the clean wind. The child wanted you to take a photo of his kite, and you did, but he will never see the photo and even if you went back to deliver it you would never find the kid, IF he were still alive. You reject the photo because the image will not transfer to the Internet--clear plastic against blue sky is not compelling. You had to be there.

Other photos remind you of the feverish, blank stares in the eyes of the sick babies.

Understand that this is the reality of the Mugunga II refugee camp located near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Imagine a small city with no infrastructure. No electricity, stores, medical care, food, little water and no blankets to cover the newborn whose cries are a testimony to their fight for life. Imagine women working as volunteer midwives who carry pregnant rape victims on their backs from the forests to the relative "safety" of this landscape.

The preacher in the UNHCR tent raises his arms and thanks God for the whites who have come from far away to fulfill HIS promise to his people. But the muzungas (whites) are not bearing anything that can possibly be of any use to these people. You dare not offer a biscuit to the hungry child with the outstretched arms because you cannot multiply it to feed 20,000. Suddenly you realize the Bible stories you learned were myth. There is no one to save these abandoned ones.

Mugunga II camp is near three other sites of Mugunga III, Buhumba and Bulengo. These "cities" are the legacy of fighting in North Kivu Province that intensified at the end of 2006. By January 2008, the total number of IDPs in the region was more than 800,000. Since the fighting resumed in August, some 250,000 additional civilians have fled, many of them already displaced.

Women, constant targets of sexual violence, are eager to step forward with their stories and offer witness.

It is the women who try to stitch together the tattered remnants of civilized society. The displaced men roam the camps in a kind of stupor.

Even outside of the IDP camps, DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world. 60 million people have suffered from decades of plundering and looting of the county's resources by corrupt leaders. Two civil wars have shredded the social fabric and created a total societal breakdown in some areas. Six million souls have been lost since 1996 and those that survive exist on less than $1 per day.

UNHCR estimates that there are over 1.1 million internally displaced people in eastern DRC requiring humanitarian assistance.

One of the women leaders at Mugunga II hands us a written request. The needs are simple: some mattresses so the babies do not have to sleep on the rocks, some cloth for covering the babies, water containers and pots for cooking. She bows her head, ashamed to ask even for this.

We take her request, thank her, and walk away. Some children are building castles in the sand piled near the camp entrance. Focus on the child with no shoes and it could be just another day at the beach.