Democratic Republic of the Congo: isolation and vulnerability in an inaccessible corner of the world
Thousands of victims of the violence caused by the conflict affecting the country struggle to survive in a huge, remote region without any infrastructure in the north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The ICRC has just launched an operation to assist more than 90,000 of them by supplying seed and tools. The delegate Abdallah Togola, whom we joined by satellite telephone, describes the lives of these families and explains how difficult it is to provide help in isolated areas.
What is the humanitarian situation like at the moment in Upper and Lower Uele?
Since 2008, almost all the inhabitants of the Ango, Banda, Doruma and Nyangara areas have been obliged to move, sometimes repeatedly, in order to escape the violence linked to the presence of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Some families have now returned to their home villages, but they live in fear of further attacks. Many people have had no news of their relatives.
Most families in this extremely isolated region, which has no infrastructure, survive on less than 50 Congolese francs (under 0.1 US dollars) a day. In one village, which the ICRC visited recently, the inhabitants had nothing to eat but wild tubers. After losing three harvests in a row, they no longer had any money to buy clothing or implements to till the land.
Could you tell us something about the life of one of the families in the region?
I am thinking of one family who originally came from Ango. The couple have five children. They used to have two fields. In the first, which took more than three hours to reach by walking through the forest, they planted manioc and bananas. In the second, a tiny plot near their home, they grew vegetables.
In September 2009, the family had to flee, abandoning the harvest and their possessions. When they returned to the village a few months later, they found that their fields had been devastated and their implements had been stolen. They now cultivate only the small plot, as they are afraid to venture into the forest.
What is more, the family now has 17 mouths to feed, because the father's two sisters and their children have joined it, after fleeing from another village in the region.
I know of many similar cases in this region, where displaced persons and residents often live in equally precarious conditions.
What impact does this isolation have on the life of the population in this region?
This isolation has adverse consequences on the daily life of the residents who feel that everyone has abandoned them.
The lack of passable roads and means of communication has a devastating impact on the local economy. Farmers have come down to transporting their produce by bicycle or canoe and they manage to sell only 10 to 15 per cent of it. They therefore have little or no cash to buy essentials such as clothing or kitchen utensils, or to pay their children's school fees.
In order to connect some places with the outside world, the ICRC, with the support of the Red Cross Society of the DRC (RCSDRC), has financed the rehabilitation of some roads and the runways at Banda and Ango. The local population took part in this project through short-term job creation programmes run by the ICRC ("cash for labour"). This was also a way of offsetting the loss of income and resources in the aftermath of the violence and insecurity.
What are the measures making up the assistance operation that you launched this week with the Red Cross Society of the DRC?
Our prime objective is to help to revive the local economy. To this end, in addition to running infrastructure rehabilitation projects, we are distributing seed and ploughing implements to some 90,000 residents and displaced persons in Upper and Lower Uele. Each family will receive 20 kg of groundnut seeds and 20 kg of fast-growing rice seeds (i.e. ready to harvest within 90 days). Our aim is to ensure that households can grow enough to feed themselves as from the next harvest in May.
At the same time, the ICRC is holding talks with the World Food Programme with a view to possibly distributing food rations pending the resumption of the agricultural cycle
We are also distributing fishing equipment to 500 families in Lower Uele, who traditionally live from this activity, but who lost everything after fleeing from their villages.
What are the main difficulties that you have encountered when carrying out this operation?
Some of the biggest challenges, apart from security, are the countless logistical obstacles.
In Lower Uele, for example, we want to send approximately 375 tons of seed and equipment to 7,000 families in the Ango region and to 1,700 families in the Banda region. For three weeks, in order to register the people who will receive this assistance, ICRC teams and volunteers from the RCSDCR have been travelling to isolated villages accessible only by motorbike or bicycle. .
The assistance is to be despatched by air to Ango and Banda. This will require about 60 round trips, 4 to 5 times a day. In Ango, after the aircraft has been unloaded, three lorries will set off towards the distribution points. As they will cross rivers and go through areas invaded by the jungle, they will be preceded by teams who will carry out makeshift repairs of bridges and roads.
It is a complex operation which, we hope, will be of great benefit to people who are all too often left to cope on their own.