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Democratic Republic of the Congo: for displaced persons in Opienge, hope comes by bicycle

06-08-2010 Feature

In the area around Tshopo (Province Orientale in the DRC), the armed conflict is affecting the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. The ICRC and the local Red Cross Society are distributing seed and household goods. By bicycle. Report by Inah Kaloga.

©ICRC/A. Togola    
Cyclists and their loads on a track near Bafwasende (Province Orientale). 

©ICRC/A. Togola    
Only those professional cyclists – known as "tolekists" (from the Lingala word "toleka", which means "to pass") – are able to find their way through the maze of impracticable roads. 

Simon is bathed in sweat. He stops for a drink of water and sees other cyclists overtake him. One of them calls out " Tufagne ngufu! " – " Keep going! " in Swahili. Simon watches them with a smile and sets off after them, not as quickly as he would like because of the bumpy ground and the load he is carrying. He is nonetheless determined not to be the last to reach the rallying point that evening.

Contrary to appearances, Simon and his friends are not taking part in a cycle race. They are part of an amazing squad of a thousand cyclists that is criss-crossing the district of Tshopo as part of an assistance operation being carried out by the ICRC and the Red Cross Society of the DRC in support of the people of Opienge.

 Rough terrain  


Province Orientale (in the north of the DRC), the scene of that unlikely cavalcade of bicycles, is known for its lush natural environment and the beauty of the countryside. However, Simon and the tens of thousands of people who have had to leave their homes in recent years have no time to gaze at the stunning natural surroundings.

" Of course it's beautiful, but just look at this track. If you want to avoid injury and arrive in one piece, you have to keep your eyes on the ground and not admire the scenery like a tourist, " Simon said.

The inadequacy and the dilapidated condition of the infrastructure and communication routes are just some of the many problems facing the people who live in that area. Transport ing essential everyday items, food or medicines may take days or even weeks. Only those professional cyclists – known as " tolekists " (from the Lingala word " toleka " , which means " to pass " ) – are able to find their way through the maze of impracticable roads.

This daily challenge comes on top of the chronic instability in the region. Over the years, the nearby forest has become home to a number of frightened families, who have been forced out of their homes by the violence and the armed conflict between the national armed forces and several armed groups in the locality.

More than 50,000 people are said to be affected by this rarely mentioned conflict. Some of them have had to leave their villages and those who have remained are no better off. Looted and destroyed villages, lost harvests, an outlook as bleak and uncertain as that dirt track – that is the lot of many men and women in Tshopo. While nearly 70% of them have returned and are starting to farm their land again, they are still sharing their resources with more than 15,000 displaced persons from far-off villages who have not yet found the courage to make the journey back home.

 Logistical headache  


Simon is pedalling his bicycle for those people. Although the road to Opienge and to Balobe, two of the areas worst hit by the conflict, is vitally important, it is unusable. As for the landing strip, a fair amount of work is needed to put it to rights.

That was the logistical challenge identified by the teams from the ICRC and the Red Cross Society of the DRC when they looked at the different possible ways of transport ing aid to the displaced, resident and returning populations in Opienge and the surrounding area.

" From Kisangani to Bafwasende, no problem, " Elias Wieland, who heads the ICRC office in Kisangani explained. " But how are we to get nearly 72 tonnes of seed and 4,000 toolkits from Bafwasende to Opienge? That is the question! "

The people living in that region solved that problem long ago – thanks to the professional cyclists, the " tolekists " , who have become an essential supply force. The lightweight, low-maintenance bicycle that is well suited to the local terrain has quickly become the kingpin of that innovative assistance operation. " I've been working in the country for the past two years. I've had to organize convoys of trucks, arrange for porters to transport vaccines on their back, manage aircraft movement, organize the loading of a barge and find motorcyclists to cope with difficult terrain. But a squad of a thousand cyclists, that's a first! " exclaimed logistics coordinator Jean-Marie Falzone, who has probably stretched the ICRC's inventiveness in the DRC to the limit.

 Seeds of hope  


Three days later, Simon arrives – exhausted but happy. " It was tough, of course, but we are used to the terrain. For me, it isn't just a physical challenge like the Tour de France. It's my job, but this time, it's also an opportunity to do something useful, " Simon explained as he unloaded the 45 kg sack of seeds from his bicycle.

Although the soil is fertile, successive conflicts have prevented the inhabitants from farming their land. Fébronie, a 30-year-old mother, said, " Life has become hard. Before, we farmed our land and Opienge fed the entire Bafwasende area. Bu t how are we supposed to farm with all this tension? Before the conflict, a cup of rice cost 100 Congolese francs; today, it costs 300. "

Simon took to his bicycle to help families like Fébronie's. In July and August, 4,000 displaced and returning households in Opienge and the surrounding area will each be given 20 kg of rice seed and 18 kg of household tools.

The " tolekists " sit watching Fébronie collecting the sacks allocated to her. She will be able to start harvesting her rice in five months'time. Just in time for Christmas.

Simon smiles. " I thought I was carrying seed. Now I know why the load was so heavy: it was full of the hopes of all those mothers. At Christmas, that seed will bring joy. In a lot of places, Father Christmas travels on a sleigh; here, he has sent a thousand bicycles of hope. "