Update on The Republic of the Congo: reorientation of ICRC assistance programmes
22-05-2000 Operational Update
The signing of the peace agreement and better security conditions have led to the speedy return of hundreds of thousands of displaced people to their homes since December 1999. In the light of these changes, the ICRC has adapted its emergency programmes and redirected its efforts to assist returnees in urgent need of help to rebuild their lives.
Since 29 December, when a ceasefire agreement was signed between the opposition group Forces d'Autodefence de la Résistance and the Government, fighting has generally stopped nationwide and negotiations have continued regarding the terms of the amnesty, demobilization and reintegration of combatants into society.
Thousands of Cocoye and Ninja militias have taken advantage of the amnesty to slowly emerge from the forests and hand in their weapons. Yet despite the ceasefire bringing greatly improved security conditions, according to observers, the peace process remains fragile, as the differing interests of the Government, and the opposition groups in exile and in the country still have to be reconciled.
As the security situation in the countryside has progressively ameliorated, there have been significant changes in the movements of the population. Displacements have ended and tens of thousands of people who had fled the fighting to Brazzaville during the previous months have headed back to their villages, mainly in the Pool region. Although most people have had to find their way home on foot, train or lorry, 7,100 displaced people who had been living in the displaced camps in Brazzaville were transported home by the ICRC. The authorities also arranged for the return to distant villages by plane and lorry, and using two special trains. In addition, people who had fled Brazzaville to take refuge in the forests in December 1998 continued to return to the capital. The numbers reduced significantly from the beginning of the year and the registration of the returnees, which dropped markedly from 1,000 per day to only a few dozen, was stopped in early February.
At present, humanitarian needs are still considerable, particularly in areas previously cut off by the conflict and in villages which are geographically isolated. The needs identified are mainly medical (shortage of public health care programmes and curative care), water and housing-related (pumps in a bad state, water sources contaminated, infrastructure damaged or destroyed) and agricultural (no tools or seeds). Although the worst of the malnutrition has been corrected, pockets still continue to be found.
The ICRC's humanitarian response
As opposition fighters have slowly demobilized, humanitarian organizations have been able to gain access to many of the areas in the centre and the west of the country which were previously inaccessible. In view of the improved humanitarian situation of those people arriv ing in Brazzaville, and the better security and access to the Pool region, the ICRC has swiftly redirected its emergency assistance activities in favour of returnees who are in need of help to restart their lives.
The focus of the ICRC's operation has therefore shifted away from assistance for the displaced in Brazzaville towards a progressive extension of operations to previously inaccessible areas of the Pool region, and to the west of the country, in the regions of Niari, Bouenza and Lekoumou. Over the last few months, agricultural, nutritional and water and habitat specialists have been carrying out assessments on the short- and mid-term situations in these regions and their results and conclusions are helping the ICRC team in the country to define future humanitarian programmes in these areas (described below). In early January, an ICRC office was opened in Kinkala, in the southern Pool region and another office was opened in Dolisie at the beginning of May.
As the number of displaced people in Brazzaville seeking medical care has dropped significantly, the ICRC has phased out its medical assistance to hospitals in the capital. At the beginning of the year, the ICRC nutritional feeding centre for displaced people from the Pool region without families in Brazzaville was treating 900 malnourished children and adults on a weekly basis. From the end of January, the number of weekly admissions fell considerably, therefore the centre was finally closed at the end of March. All discharged families were given a two-week supply of food and additional non-food material to help them with their new lives and the NGO Action contre la faim has taken over the remaining vulnerable cases.
Kindamba - northern Pool region
Following an evaluation visit to Kindamba on 8 March, high malnutrition rates were found in the remote northern Pool region, where tens of thousands of civilians had spent months hiding from the fighting in the forest. On 3 April, as the sole humanitarian organization in the region, the ICRC began a three-month emergency assistance programme in the area. As large parts of the northern Pool and western regions have been inaccessible by road since last year, an ICRC plane is now making several flights a day from Brazzaville to Kindamba and other remote places in these regions to bring humanitarian aid to the victims and to evacuate patients to hospitals in Brazzaville. The following activities have been started in Kindamba:
A feeding centre in Kindamba for severely malnourished people (capacity 750 people), while the moderately malnourished will receive special meals served in a public kitchen;
Provision of medical care, carried out in cooperation with volunteers of the Congolese Red Cross and the regional health authorities;
Water and habitat
Repairs to the Kindamba hospital, including the rehabilitation of wells and the construction of latrines.
In parallel with the assistance programme, information sessions on international humanitarian law are being held for combatants. The pull-effect of such an operation means that residents from the surrounding countryside and areas further a field have now started arriving in Kindamba seeking assistance, however, the ICRC fears that there may still be many more needy people in the area
Other ongoing economic security programmes
In villages in the other affected districts of the Pool region, the following quantities of non-food assistance has been distributed :
Cooking pots 4,933
Soap 2.156 tonnes
All distributions are carried out by volunteers from the Congolese Red Cross. The International Federation provides support, including training and the transportation of the volunteers.
An agriculture programme is also currently being implemented for some 6,000 families (30,000 people) displaced by the conflict who are progressively moving back to their homes in the Kinkala area . Vegetable seeds (thirteen varieties) and tools are starting to be distributed to needy families.
Up to 1 March, when food distributions ended in the capital, 25,308 people returning to Brazzaville from the bush were provided with a two-week food supply. In the districts of Brazzaville most affected by the conflict, 7,005 families, whose houses had been badly damaged and looted, received household material (1,762 mosquito nets, 1.41 tonnes of soap, 1,762 blankets and 1,762 buckets) to help them restart their lives. At the end of April, the remaining 200 displaced people left Mafouta camp in Brazzaville to return home, allowing the ICRC to finally close the last of its four camps for the displaced in the capital.
During field assessments in the Pool, Niari, Bouenza and Lekoumou regions , the ICRC identified a lack of medical care as one of the main problems in most rural areas. From February, the ICRC, in co-operation with the regional health authorities, started programmes for the rehabilitation of badly damaged or non-functional health centres in the Pool (11 village health centres) and western Niari, Lekoumou and Bouenza regions (eight health centres) These involve essential repairs to infrastructure, ensuring access to clean water and the coverage of sanitation requirements. All health centres will also be supplied with basic medicines and dressing material, together with office material and furniture .
Water and habitat
Thanks to improved security, ICRC water and habitat teams have been able to carry out evaluations and emergency programmes in the Pool, Niari and Bouenza regions to help to alleviate the plight of local populations.
Dolisie - the third largest town in Congo (population 80,000 people) - suffers from shortages of clean drinking water. In response, the ICRC has started to rehabilitate ten communal springs and wells, and carry out complete repairs to the national water company (SNDE) water treatment plant. The rehabilitation of the water treatment plant in Nkayi was also started in April.
As described earlier, construction and repair work, as part of the rehabilitation programme for health centres in the Pool and Niari, Bouenza and Lekoumou regions , are also being carried out.
In Brazzaville , with the closure of the sites for the displaced, the ICRC's water and habitat work focuses solely on providing emergency supplies of drinking water to three hospitals if there are disruptions to the water supplied by the capital's two water treatment plants.
Over the next two to four months, the ICRC plans to continue these projects and initiate the following water and habitat programmes:
water micro-projects in the Dolisie area;
micro-projects in the Pool region;
improvements to the system of emergency water points in Brazzaville.
Other ICRC activities
Following an agreemen t signed on 12 November 1999, ICRC delegates have been able to carry out visits to detainees held in 19 different places of detention under the responsibility of the Ministries of Justice, Defence and Interior in Brazzaville, Gamboma, Djambala, Impfondo and Pointe Noire. The ICRC also works to ensure that persons separated from their families by the conflict and without any means of communicating with them are given the opportunity to send Red Cross messages (RCMs). Between January and March 367 RCMs were received and 884 sent. The ICRC also reunites Congolese unaccompanied children (average 15 per month) and Rwandan (average 6 per month) with their families and organizes dissemination programmes for the armed forces and militia combatants.
The ICRC contributes towards the financing of the International Federation/Congolese Red Cross projects, which focus on support to community health services and first-aid carried out by the Congolese Red Cross. The other main humanitarian organizations currently active in the country, include MSF, Caritas and ACF.