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Learning to walk again and live anew

27-06-2005 Feature

Ilunga Mubelelwa, a native of a small village in Katanga province, stepped on an anti-personnel mine in 2003. He never could have imagined that he would one day travel thousands of kilometres to be treated in Kinshasa by an ICRC limb-fitting team. Fabien Pouille, an ICRC agronomist, tells about Ilunga’s return to active life.


© CICR / Fabien Pouille 
Ilunga Mubelelwa (left) and Banze Musongela Kantololo in Kabongo before leaving for Kinshasa. 

Two years ago Ilunga Mubelelwa was living quietly in Manono territory, on the right bank of the Congo river over 1,000 kilometres from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One morning he went to a field to harvest maize. He went the usual way, then took a small detour to avoid an area that the river had flooded. One step to the left and there was an explosion: Ilunga had just stepped on an anti-personnel mine. His leg had been torn to shreds and felt as if it were on fire. “Two friends took me as far as the village. There, a tourniquet was applied to stop the bleeding, and traditional remedies were used to reduce the pain and prevent infection. But a few days later the leg was infected and the traditional doctor decided to amputate it to save my life.”

Ilunga may not be especially adept at expressing hi s physical suffering, but his moral suffering is perceptible in everything he says. “After my convalescence, I felt excluded from village activities. It was impossible for me to work the fields. I moved about very little, leaning on a staff. It was very tiring. Of course, my family helped me a lot, but I was aware that I was a burden to them. Then in August 2004 I learned from one of my friends that the ICRC helps the war-wounded.”

Accompanied by his brother, Ilunga went to Ankoro, a nearby village, to meet ICRC staff working there. They told him that an aircraft would land at Kabongo, some 200 kilometres distant, in a week. A few hours later they informed the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Lubumbashi about Ilunga. The ICRC medical coordinator and the limb-fitting team were then contacted in Kinshasa and gave the go-ahead.

Just glance at a map: Katanga province by itself is huge and the entire territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo immense. Ilunga never imagined that he would one day travel such distances. “I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get on a plane and receive treatment in Kinshasa. I had heard about the big city when I was in school but I never thought I would go there. Listening to the ICRC staff members, it seemed so easy to cross all of the Congo. The most difficult part was getting to Kabongo.”

Five days: that is how long it took to travel the 200 kilometres from Ankoro to Kabongo. After telling his family where he was going, Ilunga left on a bicycle which his brother pedaled while he sat on the carrier.

“We took wrong turns several times,” he said. “In addition, there were armed men everywhere and we were very scared. When we finally arrived, we were exhausted. We went straight to the ICRC office. There, the staff gave us water and food. When they noticed that I had nothing but my shorts and T-shirt, they even took me to the market to buy me clothes and toiletries.”

The next day he travelled by air to Lubumbashi and the day after that to the capital Kinshasa. “When I arrived in ‘Kin,’ I was completely lost. Fortunately, ICRC doctors were there to meet me. On the second day, they began tests that were needed to make my prosthesis. It took me three weeks to learn to walk again. It was really quite painful at first, then less and less so. It’s still a little painful today.”

Back in Ankoro, Ilunga refused to use the car that had been sent to take him from the landing strip to the village; he insisted on walking with his new prosthesis. “My entire family and all my friends came to see me. No one could believe that I could walk normally again with a prosthesis.”

Today, Ilunga has resumed his studies. He goes to school every day on foot. He also wants to take advantage of the programme to revitalize vegetable production set up by ICRC agronomists and begin growing vegetables. “Distances are not important to me now,” he said.