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.
Mugunga II camp has been in existence since May 2007.Currently there are approximately 20,360 internally displaced persons in Mugunga II. Imagine a small city with no infrastructure, electricity, sanitation or medical care. The population is comprised of roughly 7,000 children, many of whom were orphaned by the war.
Fighting in North Kivu intensified at the end of 2006. By January 2008, the violence brought the total number of IDPs in the region to more than 800,000. Since the fighting resumed in August, some 250,000 civilians fled, many of them already displaced before the recent fighting. Some human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, estimate that nearly 1.5 million people were displaced.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) was already unable to meet the needs of the displaced populations, prior to the fighting resuming in August 2008 between forces loyal to the current Congolese government (FARDC) and the General Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP). Rations have been drastically reduced—up to 50 percent in some cases.
200,000 people were displaced in September alone, bringing the total to between 1.3 and 2 million IDPs in North Kivu Province.
Rape, pillaging, and banditry are commonplace, therefore placing women and children in great danger. There are also allegations of soldiers stealing what little possessions the displaced have managed to carry with them.
During September and the first two weeks of October 2008, 1,200 households arrived in Mugunga II, one of four camps 10km west of Goma. The families are given plastic sheeting and sticks for constructing huts and are allocated a plot on which to build their shelters. Displaced families that are unable to finish constructing their huts spend their first night in communal shelters where they are assisted with firewood for cooking meals. The “address” is painted on the side of the hut. For example, 35-32 means block 35 hut number 32.
A family of six sleeps and lives in a 7 x10-foot hut made of sticks and plastic sheeting. The floor is made of dirt and volcanic rocks.
Pregnant women and children are exhausted and hungry. Some go for weeks without the plastic sheeting needed to construct the huts that form housing. A biscuit is a prize. Many women and infants die in childbirth from malnutrition and exhaustion. Mothers do not even have a cloth to cover their newborn babies. There are few cooking utensils or dishes. Even the water cans are worn out.
Preacher: “Holy God, we must thank you because you brought the people from very far from abroad. Protect them. God you are God of love— you are God of everyone black and white. God you promised to give us peace…” (translated from Swahili) The Goma peace talks have resumed in Nairobi, Kenya, with representatives from the UN, the African Union, the European Union, the United States, and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. They are brokering negotiations between forces loyal to General Laurent Nkunda (CNDP) and the Government of Joseph Kabila (FARDC).
Women try to collect wood in the park to use for cooking and are often raped along the way. Five women were reported raped by “permanent” bandits in recent days. At the Kabila Camp, north of the Mugunga camps, Emmanuel DeMerode, new head of the Virunga National Park, has removed barriers that denied refugees access to firewood. In an interview, DeMerode said, “We are still trying to a solution to the considerable damage that is being inflicted on the park as a result of my decision to abandon the barrier, but please understand that I do not believe that the wildlife should take priority over people's needs.”
Contagious diseases are rampant. This child has impetigo on his nose, which is epidemic in the camp. Scabies, diarrhea, thrush, fungal diseases are common and “benign” compared to more serious tropical diseases and viruses. HIV is a curse and a typhoid outbreak is a fear.
Through it all, the children are happy just to receive a muzunga (white) visitor. It is impossible to avoid contact with the children, as they will literally climb all over you for a hug or a smile. For visitors, the risk of contracting an illness pales with the suffering these children undergo on a daily basis.
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.
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