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Update No. 98/03 on ICRC activities in Guinea-Bissau

06-07-1998 Operational Update No 98/03


Despite joint efforts by Portugal and Angola to restore peace to the country further to the mutiny on 7 June, no agreement has yet been reached and the conflict has now spread into a few provinces such as Quinara, Oio and Cacheu. Heavy artillery shelling and automatic gunfire intensified in the Bra area of Bissau and around the airport again on 5 July as forces backing President Joao Bernardo Vieira continued their battle with army mutineers. 

An ICRC team left Conakry on 24 June and managed to assess the situation along the main Farim-Mansoa-Buba route (which runs from north to south) and Buruntuma-Bafata-Mansoa (from east to west). Another team is assessing the situation in some ten islands on the archipelago of Bijagos. Contacts were established with local authorities, churches and Red Cross branches during this time in order to glean a fuller picture of present and anticipated future humanitarian needs. Contacts have also been made with the mutineers to alert them to the Red Cross presence and mandate and to gain acceptance in order to carry out essential humanitarian work. Unrest in Bissau itself has indeed triggered quite substantial population movements. Although no comprehensive census has been made and whilst no camps have been set up, the authorities currently estimate that some 270,000 people are scattered around the country.

 Humanitarian situation  

The majority of the displaced have been housed by the local population. Whilst this avoids many of the immediate problems associate d with large congregations of people (access to clean water, risk of disease etc.), it places host families in a precarious economic situation too, since supplies become rapidly depleted. Fighting has disrupted the cashew trade which means that people are unable to buy rice. This could in turn impact upon prices and purchasing power.

In addition to generalized economic hardships, the displaced population will undoubtedly put a strain on communal water and medical resources. The majority of villages have hand-dug wells and boreholes equipped with hand-pumps. At the moment though, most of the wells are dry since the rainy season is late in starting and the impact of recent rainfall (29 June) will not be felt for two-three weeks. Because the " newcomers " are well dispersed amongst the communities though, the situation is not altogether alarming for the time being. However, in urban centres, the pressure is a lot more noticeable. Gabu's 29,000 residents, for example, have been joined by an estimated 25,000 displaced.

Medical facilities outside Bissau will be similarly affected by the influx of people. With some villages practically doubling their population, pharmacy stocks will be depleted within a few weeks and the authorities are no longer able to guarantee deliveries of new supplies. Many of those leaving Bissau had to walk for several days, weakening resistance to illnesses and disease. The most commonly reported complaints have been malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory infections.

 Red Cross activities: current and short-term response  

Should the conflict develop over the next month and given the interruption of the agro-economic cycle, the ICRC plans to support those families which need help. A possible 150,000 people will need tiding over until the next rice harvest in October or November. In the meantime, ad hoc di stributions will continue in and around Bissau. Between 23 and 30 June, over 105 mt of rice, beef and oil from World Food Programme stocks were distributed to over 28,000 people on the edge of and in the capital and along the main route between Prabis and Cumura.

The ICRC is also keen to monitor the food situation for patients in hospitals where, again, the authorities are no longer able to guarantee deliveries. Plans also need to be made in order to provide support to the medical system which will inevitably suffer in the event of a prolonged conflict. Attention will focus on dispensaries and health posts in southern and central areas of the country. Efforts at this stage will concentrate on building up emergency stocks of surgical, paediatric and hospital kits, dressings and drugs for ad hoc distribution to medical centres.

Ensuring access to clean water supplies and fully functioning sanitation systems helps to curb the spread of illness and disease. Potential areas for concern were identified during the course of the ICRC assessment and, on the basis of these, moves are now underway to deliver fuel, essential parts and chemicals to several destinations. Tanks containing 5,000 litres of drinking water from International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Society (Federation) stocks were placed in three places around Bissau by the National Society in order to ensure the displaced with access to safe water.

Most of the assistance activities are carried out by the National Society whose capacity is reinforced by the Federation and the ICRC.

 Staf  f  

There are currently three expatriate staff in Bissau and two in the east of the country. Based on the findings of the first evaluation, the ICRC will need to reinforce its staffing levels in the field sh ortly.