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Democratic Republic of the Congo: family solidarity for displaced persons in Equateur province

28-07-2010 Interview

ICRC agronomist Jean Cimanga regularly travels around Equateur province in the north-west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the ICRC has just been distributing seed. He talks about the situation of the people living there, who are still suffering from the effects of the inter-community violence which occurred at the end of 2009 and the subsequent clashes between armed groups and the national armed forces.

©ICRC/E. Togala 
  Jean Cimanga, agronomist for the ICRC in the DRC.    

©ICRC/E. Togala 
  Dongo, Equateur province. A hut being built by volunteers from the Red Cross Society of the DRC.    

©ICRC/E. Togala 
  Dongo. A carpenter making doors and windows.    

©ICRC/E. Togala 
  A volunteer from the Red Cross Society of the DRC in Dongo.    

 What are things like today in that province following last year's violence?  

Things are fairly quiet right now. In the regions through which we travelled, the inhabitants are gradually resuming their activities. After the violence to which they were subjected and which they witnessed, they will need time and more support to get over those traumas. Most of the displaced persons who had left their villages in October 2009 have not yet returned home and there are still a large number of refugees from Equateur on the other side of the river, in the Republic of the Congo. In Dongo, many houses were destroyed and work is needed to rebuild the town.

 What do the people need most at present?  

The conversations that we had with the inhabitants of the different regions that we visited indicated that seed and farming tools were indispensable. The people want to resume farming activities and prepare for the next season's harvest, which implies being able to sow in July.

Equateur province is often described as the country's storehouse; its fertile soil produces plenty of maize, manioc and beans. However, there is a shortage of seed, and following the violence of recent months which cut off access to the land in many places, the people risk not being able to benefit from the next farming season.

For that reason, we started distributing seed and farming tools to 25,000 people in the area around Dongo as well as fishing material to 2,000 fishermen. In March, we had already distributed seed for food crops (maize and niebe beans) and vegetable produce (spinach, tomatoes and amaranth) as well as farming tools such as hoes and spades to more than 27,000 displaced persons and residents in Bokonzi and the surrounding areas.

 How do you choose the villages receiving this assistance?  

While some displaced persons managed to leave their villages with their livestock, a little food and a few personal effects, many people had to leave everything behind. We have concentrated our activities on the villages of Bokonzi, Makengo and Mutuba because their inhabitants took in a large number of displaced persons and shared their resources, homes and land with them. Many of those displaced persons took refuge with relatives. Without that solidarity, their daily life, which was already tough, would have been even more difficult. However, the inhabitants'resources were already meagre before the arrival of the displaced persons and the local population therefore also needs support because today its resources are shared by all.

 You have seen a lot of destroyed houses. What are you doing in response to that problem?  

That is indeed one of the most visible consequences of the fighting. A programme to rebuild several thousand destroyed or damaged houses has been under way in the Dongo area since March. The work is being carried out by local workmen and volunteers from the Red Cross Society of the DRC in return for payment. This programme has two advantages: the beneficiary families can go back to live in renovated houses and the workmen receive remuneration that allows them to meet some of their families'needs. In addition, the money that they earn increases their purchasing power and helps to stimulate the local market, something that is badly needed.


 Have you noticed other needs?  

We have passed through deserted villages. A village's inhabitants are its soul. No one willingly leaves his village. For those villages to be repopulated, for people to return, the inhabitants have to feel safe again.

Feeling safe also means knowing that their relatives are safe and well. Unfortunately, we have noticed that many families have lost contact with some of their relatives. Since the start of the year, our teams have registered 127 children who have become separated from their parents and are unaccompanied. For families who do not know what has happened to one of their members, especially if that person is a child, the uncertainty is an ordeal that it is extremely difficult to overcome. That is why we spare no effort to trace those children's families.

It is with that aim in mind that we are working with the Red Cross Society of the DRC to set up a network of volunteers, which will make the tracing work easier. Working from outposts in Gemena, Lisala, Bumba, Gbadolite, Zongo and Kungu, that network will make it possible to trace the parents of unaccompanied children registered in Equateur province or on the other side of the border, in the Republic of the Congo. The work will also involve publishing lists and placing them at the different outposts on both sides of the border.

 A lot has been said about the problem of reaching that province; what difficulties have you had to overcome?  

It really is a logistical headache. The condition of the roads makes it considerably more difficult to transport relief and the local logistical facilities are relatively limited. We basically travelled around by motorbike. The seeds a nd tools that we were going to distribute were transported along the river by barge. Some colleagues spent a night in the bush, stuck in a broken-down truck! However, the willingness of the whole team and the determination of the volunteers accompanying us enabled us to overcome difficulties that would have threatened to disrupt our activities.

 What has affected you most during your work in Equateur?  

I can still remember whole days spent on the motorbike. From Bokonzi to Dongo, we spent virtually 10 hours a day travelling with a load of 30 kilos through devastated countryside, with deserted and burnt-out homes. It was on that motorbike that I became aware of the vast scale of the violence to which that region had been subjected.

Yet what affected me the most was the joy of everyone we helped. What we do is practical, it responds to the people's immediate needs and I have no doubt about its impact. I just have to imagine myself in their position to realise that what we do is about a lot more than repairing houses and distributing tools or family news. For those people, it is about going back home, a window to the future and hope.

I will also remember the spirit of humanity and compassion motivating the volunteers from the Red Cross Society of the DRC. In Bokonzi, for example, in the days after of the fighting had ceased, some volunteers succeeded – with extremely limited means – in organizing collections of clothes and plastic sheets for the displaced persons. They make me feel immensely proud and, in particular, they imbue the authorities and the local people with great confidence. Everyone feels reassured by the presence of the Red Cross and it is that confidence that enables us to carry out actions like this one.