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Republic of the Congo: clearing the stricken area and reuniting families

22-03-2012 Operational Update

Since ammunition stockpiles exploded in Brazzaville on 4 March, unexploded devices in inhabited areas have been and still are a major hazard for the population and emergency services alike.

"The main thing now is to clear those areas as quickly as possible so that the people who live or work there and want to go back can do so without danger," said Bernard Metraux, the head of the ICRC mission in Brazzaville.

"For people without news of a family member whose body has not been recovered or identified, not knowing what happened is a heavy burden," said Mr Metraux. Although many children have already been reunited with their families, others are still separated from theirs. In areas where displaced people have been accommodated, health-care centres are having to cope with an influx of patients. In addition, the sheer force of the blast and the extent of the damage have had severe psychological consequences for the inhabitants and for rescue workers.

Clearance activities

Under an agreement with the Ministry of Defence, and in cooperation with the United Nations Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC), ICRC explosive ordnance disposal experts are currently at work clearing and securing the hazardous areas. The ICRC's clearance effort is focusing mainly on Sector 1 in Brazzaville's striken area, which comprises the Ouenzé and Talangai districts. With some 350,000 inhabitants, these districts are among the most populated – and hardest hit – in the capital. The aim of the work currently under way is to reduce the danger as quickly as possible for the population, rescue workers and emergency services. A swift clearance of the area will also enable people to return to their homes.

The ICRC is also working with the Congolese armed forces to remove explosive devices that had been cast onto the premises of Talangai Hospital, one of the capital's main medical centres. The hospital was partially destroyed by the blast and needs to be repaired.

The ICRC made a specially equipped ambulance and medical personnel trained for mine-clearance operations available to ordnance disposal specialists already on the ground (three disposal teams from Handicap International and one from Demeter-Benin). Fifteen sets of first-aid equipment used in operations of this kind, including such items as stretchers, stethoscopes, blood-pressure monitors as well as first-aid supplies, were given to the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

To support clearance operations, 70 Congolese Red Cross volunteers trained to raise awareness of the dangers of unexploded devices are giving out information in the neighbourhoods affected and in places where displaced people have gathered. Using specially designed brochures and posters, they are explaining the risks involved, how people should behave, and how the work currently being done by ordnance disposal experts is progressing.

Management of dead bodies

A total of 288 corpses have so far been identified at the Brazzaville mortuary, where some 15 others have so far not been identified. An unknown number of bodies are still in the zone now being cleared. With the aim of helping families to find out what happened to their missing loved ones, ICRC staff specializing in forensic medicine and in tracing services are supporting the local authorities in their efforts to manage mortal remains.

An ICRC forensic medical expert is leading and supervising the collection of post-mortem data from dead bodies in cooperation with the staff at the Brazzaville mortuary. Seven members of a Congolese medical research foundation are trained in the techniques required.

Tracing unaccompanied children and restoring contact between family members

Thanks to the support of Brazzaville media outlets, the population has been informed that there is a service, set up by the ICRC and the Congolese Red Cross, that traces children who have been separated from their families. Almost 90 families have asked the two organizations to help find their children. To date, 42 of 48 children identified by the ICRC as unaccompanied have been reunited with their parents. Six children and nine adolescents are still waiting to rejoin their families.

With the support of 17 Congolese Red Cross volunteers, the ICRC is pressing ahead with its work identifying children and tracing family members. Information panels in both childcare facilities where unaccompanied children are looked after are constantly updated. The ICRC is providing the facilities with clothing, food and various supplies.

Psychological support

The accident has had a considerable psychological impact on inhabitants of neighbourhoods near the blast site. ICRC staff are striving to identify and respond to their most urgent needs.

For those who have been at the forefront of helping victims or the areas affected, the work is psychologically very demanding. The 70 Congolese Red Cross volunteers taking part in the operations are currently receiving psychological support to help them cope and to avoid any post-traumatic stress. In addition, two ICRC specialists are available to help staff at the mortuary involved in dead-body management.

Aid for primary health-care services

To enable three health-care centres situated near places where displaced people are accommodated to cope with the influx of patients, the ICRC and the Congolese Red Cross have given them enough basic medicines to meet the needs of some 1,000 people for three months.

The response by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is being coordinated among all the Movement's components present in the Republic of the Congo.

For further information, please contact:
Maria Puy Serra, ICRC Brazzaville, tel: +242 05 341 70 19
Marie-Servane Desjonquères, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 536 92 58


Photos

Brazzaville, the Talangai district, hard hit by the explosion. People are trying to resume their everyday lives. 

Brazzaville, the Talangai district, hard hit by the explosion. People are trying to resume their everyday lives.
© ICRC / cg-e-00148

Brazzaville, Talangai Hospital. Explosive devices were cast onto the premises, and the hospital was partially destroyed by the blast. 

Brazzaville, Talangai Hospital. Explosive devices were cast onto the premises, and the hospital was partially destroyed by the blast.
© ICRC

Brazzaville, the Talangai district. An ICRC explosive ordnance disposal specialist participating in a clearing operation. 

Brazzaville, the Talangai district. An ICRC explosive ordnance disposal specialist participating in a clearing operation.
© ICRC

Brazzaville mortuary. An ICRC forensic medical expert training staff to conduct post-mortem examinations of unidentified bodies of victims of the Mpila explosion. 

Brazzaville mortuary. An ICRC forensic medical expert training staff to conduct post-mortem examinations of unidentified bodies of victims of the Mpila explosion.
© ICRC / cg-e-00146

Brazzaville, Mungali childcare facility. Information panels with photographs of unaccompanied children and tracing requests submitted by parents. 

Brazzaville, Mungali childcare facility. Information panels with photographs of unaccompanied children and tracing requests submitted by parents.
© ICRC / cg-e-00143

Brazzaville, Makelekele childcare facility. Items donated to the facility, which looks after unaccompanied children. 

Brazzaville, Makelekele childcare facility. Items donated to the facility, which looks after unaccompanied children.
© ICRC / cg-e-00145

Brazzaville, headquarters of the Congolese Red Cross. Volunteers receive psychological support in group sessions and are trained in stress-management techniques before being deployed to the field. 

Brazzaville, headquarters of the Congolese Red Cross. Volunteers receive psychological support in group sessions and are trained in stress-management techniques before being deployed to the field.
© ICRC

Brazzaville, medicines and supplies donated to primary health-care centres situated near places where displaced people are accommodated. 

Brazzaville, medicines and supplies donated to primary health-care centres situated near places where displaced people are accommodated.
© ICRC / cg-e-00144