Photographer Alvaro Ybarra Zavala previously reported on the violence in North Kivu in 2008. In October, a few weeks before the takeover of Goma by the armed group M23, Alvaro went to North Kivu province with the International Committee of the Red Cross. His pictures illustrate the lives of those individuals who survive day after day despite the violence, to tell their story, and, through their testimonies, give them a voice.
Alvaro started his journey in the province capital of Goma. He then travelled westwards, first via plane to Kisangani and then on an 8-hour drive to the mineral rich town of Walikale. Last July, Walikale and towns and villages around it were the scene of violent clashes between an armed group and the Congolese army. The town’s main hospital and many healthcare centres had to cope with a massive influx of injured and sick, as well as displaced persons seeking safety. The staff fought to keep hospital as a neutral ground, despite pressure from the different sides, and did its best to treat all the wounded impartially. Aside from helping evacuate the most severely injured and covering the costs of treatment for the war-wounded, the ICRC, which has been supporting the hospital since this year (2012), provided medical equipment and medicine to help the hospital respond to this latest crisis.
Over the next couple of days, Alvaro travelled to other parts of the territory, photographing sites and people recently affected by the violence. He spent the night in a town which, this year alone, has seen several confrontations, and where, just a few kilometres away, the Congolese army was having a showdown with yet another armed group. There he captured images of displaced civilians, of the individuals who host them, visited the local medical centre and met with its staff, such as the midwife. He walked around the wards and photographed families who had travelled days to bring their sick there, as well as Congolese soldiers watching over their ill children. In nearby villages, he met with women who were recently the victims of sexual assault or of rape, and with those who, with training and support from the ICRC psychosocial programme, help them find the courage and strength to recover from such violence. Meanwhile, Alvaro saw the local ICRC protection team at work, endlessly and arduously meeting with local civilians and leaders, discussing their concerns, searching for solutions to help them, and contacting armed forces or armed groups’ commanders to discuss humanitarian matters. The ICRC assistance teams arrived shortly after to evaluate the needs of the displaced in view of providing them with essential food and other items.
From Walikale, Alvaro visited Red Cross volunteers who, during the latest round of violence, evacuated the injured or buried the deceased, sometimes despite their own great personal loss. He met with a nurse who, almost under fire, continued to treat the injured, or with a single mother who, with very limited means, did not hesitate to take in and care for another child when she found the young girl lost, hungry and alone.
Back in Walikale town, Alvaro visited a transit and orientation centre for children who had formerly been recruited into an armed group or force, as porters, cooks, fighters or so forth, and whom the ICRC and Red Cross volunteers are working with so that they can be reunited with their families. Alvaro was later introduced to two young boys who had returned home and who explained why, in their case, they chose to join an armed group, and why they later ran away.
He travelled to camp near Mugunga, 7km west of Goma to meet with displaced families. In the Kivus, so many people are displaced over and over again that to talk of displacement is almost to obscure its commonplace and ‘multiplied’ nature. Alvaro visited patients at the civilian hospital N'Dosho, which has benefited from ICRC support, supervision and training since 2008 and where, just these past few weeks, the ICRC surgical team and the hospital staff have carried out 100 operations. Aside from the physical toll of violence, its more invisible impacts can often be overlooked or harder to portray, so to complement what he had already shot, Alvaro visited the mental health hospital where ICRC also refers and supports patients. He spent another day at the military camp and its hospital, where the ICRC provides medicines and helps with physiotherapy and assistive devices such as prosthesis and crutches.
To conclude his tour, Alvaro visited the ICRC-supported physical rehabilitation centre, which manufactures the specialised assistive devices mentioned earlier and offers patients physiotherapy.
In a place where violence has become commonplace, any given day is just that, as lives can be very quickly undone. Amidst the violence and insecurity, resilience is not a choice but a necessity. Yet every day, many go a step further when it comes to helping their child, their brother, their sister, their neighbour, their brother-in-arms, displaying remarkable tenacity and courage, without even realising it or anyone taking note.
This feature was shot in October 2012.
A full edit of 97 images is available on request. The images are available in either colour or black & white.
Dr Mukwe Muvi, a surgeon in a war zone
Did you or your colleagues feel threatened at any point?
As medical workers, we were threatened by both of the adversaries. On either side of where clashes were occurring, if rebels came into the hospital, they would tell us, “You’re supporting the other side,” and if it was the opposing party, it would be the same thing. They blamed us for all kinds of evils, to the point where, if push came to shove, the hospital would also be the target of attacks, no matter what.
What made you stay, despite everything?
As a patriot and a humanitarian, with our principles, as you see me here: in the first place, I was trained by the Red Cross and we have our seven principles. Of these, the first one I would mention is neutrality. With these principles, therefore, we cannot leave people in distress. In addition, medical ethics requires me to stay with the population. It’s better to die with my people than to run away. It would be very serious to learn that there was such and such a case, but the doctor wasn’t there. That would be very serious. If a medical procedure was carried out to save a victim, and the person died, I think that I would have to bear all the consequences. In those circumstances, it’s better to stay. It’s better to die in the line of duty than to be off work and die from a stray bullet.
Zaina Kibehere, a displaced person caring for her relatives
What are your plans now?
I cannot leave my sister and her children all alone here. One day they’ll go home, and then I could join my family.
Are you not scared about losing touch with your family?
No, that won’t happen. Sometimes I send messages with a motorcycle policeman who’s heading in that direction. I explained it to him this way: I said that my relatives are in need and I’m helping them until they can return home.
Are you afraid that the violence could reach your current location and that you will be displaced again?
We’re staying here for now. If things get worse, we will have to leave again.
Leontine, a midwife at a health centre
What is giving you the strength to stay here?
I would say it’s compassion. I have compassion for people who are suffering, for my people who are suffering, even if my family is suffering over there, in town, while others are suffering alone here in the forest. If I decide to go home to join my family, they will go on suffering and needing me. If I’m chatting with the moms and I say that I’m going to leave and go home, some of them get down on their knees before me and say, “Mama, you mustn’t abandon us, you have to stay with us.”
What would you say about the impact of armed conflict on the people that live here (other than the healthcare issues)?
We’re short of food, and we also lack means of transportation and communication. We lack many things here […] yes, because of the conflict. Can a partner come from Kinshasa to install a communication antenna here? Where there’s a war going on? Is anyone going to come? That would be a bit difficult, even if someone has good intentions. But as there are no means of transportation and communication, people are suffering a lot because of that.
Have do you maintain contact with your children?
It’s so difficult. Sometimes I write letters and give them to a motorcycle policeman or someone who’s travelling to Goma. But right now it’s difficult, even if I have something to send them, like palm oil or cassava flour, who can bring that to them? Transportation is very expensive, and it’s in short supply. They also send me news through letters, but that’s not enough. If they have problems with the rent or at school, it’s a long time before the news reaches me. It’s not easy.
Carine, a mother of four who is also caring for Jeanne, an orphan
How did Jeanne come to live with you?
When the conflict began in the town, we stayed at home, and the shooting increased. The next day, we got the message that we would each have to find a way to leave on our own. We left and were trying to go to a village, and when we stopped to rest along the way, we saw Jeanne, who was by herself. There was no one there. At first we thought she was just a child like the others. We thought she had a family, and that someone would come looking for her. During the day we prepared food, and we didn’t give her any, but by evening we noticed that no one had come to get her, and that was when we realized that she was alone, and I decided to take her with us. I paid the porters $40 so that she could cross over from the other side of the river. Before coming back down here, we walked around showing Jeanne to different groups of displaced people to see if they recognized her and if they were her family, or knew them. That was how I decided to keep her with me, as my daughter.
Has a tracing request been submitted with the Red Cross?
We filed a tracing request, but so far we haven’t found anyone who recognizes her.
Do you feel ready to welcome her as your own daughter?
When I found her, she was wounded, and I paid for her care. I couldn’t allow her to leave.
What is the impact on Jeanne and other children like her who end up in the same situation?
In wartime, children panic, and if you’re not careful, they may run away from home and not return, and that’s how they can get lost. If they find a kind-hearted person, they will have a chance of finding another family, but if not, they can get lost.
I get the impression that, here in the DRC, families wouldn’t leave children on their own, without taking care of them... is that correct?
As a mother, I suffered, I went through pain to have my daughter and my other children, and other moms suffered in the same way to have their children. As a mother, I say you can’t leave children like that.
Kifoku Salamu, a nurse
They brought us a person who was wounded in the left leg. The two bones between the knee and the ankle, the tibia and the fibula, were broken. This combatant died of his wound because of the lack of transportation at that time of day, on account of the war […] Even if we’d had a car, there was no way to get him out and take him to the general hospital. That’s why that man died. […] In any case, we could not find a way, because even here, at the health centre, there was no one passing by at that time.
It was difficult to leave there and go outside. Some bullets even struck the Ndjingala health centre. There were shots that missed and hit the health centre. We stayed inside with my colleagues. In the meantime, we received victims. We gave up on treating them until it was finished. A man was wounded in the right leg. We spent the night together here, but we transferred him to Walikale Hospital on Thursday.
During a confrontation with M23, I took a bullet in the arm, and as gangrene was beginning to set in, they had to amputate. I served my country, and for that reason, I’m not unhappy.
How did you feel going through all of this, the evacuation to a new location... did people reassure you?
When I was struck by the bullet, I had one child on my back and another in my arms. As soon as I was hit, I started screaming, and people came to rescue her. They hid her until the shooting stopped. The next day, she was evacuated for treatment. […] When I saw my swollen leg, I thought I was already dead… But as it turned out, I was still alive…
Had you had to flee before this day when you were injured?
During the day, I went to the forest, and if we thought there was no gunfire, we came back. One time, we crossed the border; we went to Uganda, and we came back. It depends on the security situation. If conditions become unsafe, we leave, and if later on we feel that things are calm, we return.
Bahati Espoir (not his real name), a detainee
I feel that I’ve lost, because I’m in detention. It’s six years now, and I have trouble remembering certain things, my children’s ages, for example.
Sofia, a war victim
It was around 2 a.m. and we were at home. We were sleeping, and all of a sudden we heard gunshots. When we tried to leave, my body was riddled by bullets. After that, after several minutes, I wound up at the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two days later, they brought me here. My body was deformed, and I didn’t know what had happened to my children. Members of the armed group came into the village. They hit me with a machete and killed my husband. I was with my four children, and two of them fled. She has been in the hospital for four months. She says it was God who gave her strength when she found herself there. The very fact that she was in the hospital gave her hope, hope that she would recover in spite of everything she had been through.
Christian-Prince, a former child soldier
Prince joined an armed group in an attempt to live a less harsh life. Once in the group, he realized that life was even worse for him in the bush, where he was a porter, and where he saw one of his friends killed during a battle. So he decided to run away and be demobilized. The ICRC helped him find his family in Walikale, where he returned to school and is now in his first year of high school. Life is still hard, and Prince was forced to interrupt his studies because his family was experiencing economic hardship. Prince believes that, despite the everyday problems of family life and the situation in the country, he is better off than he was in the armed group. He helps his mother with work in the fields.
Didier, a former child soldier
My name is Didier. I’m 14 years old and in the first year of high school. I fell behind in my studies because of the instability in the region. We are often forced to move to get away from the fighting, and that slows down our progress in school.
We joined the armed group as a trio, but one of us died at the front. We found another boy who had been there before us, and we left with him. All three of us are related.
Because the situation was unsafe, and because some combatants had insulted my mother – they beat her and stole everything she had right in front of me! – I decided to join an armed group in order to find those who had shown disrespect for my family, and get revenge. But also, because of the unsafe conditions, my parents could not tend to their work in order to feed us and pay for our schooling.
In the armed group, our job was to carry medicines for the troops, but we were also armed so that if there was a battle, we would be able to fight.
Denis, a volunteer from Ndjingala
We were taking care of the dead body of a soldier, when suddenly we were caught in crossfire. Some of us nearly died. I went to where my family was, to hide. I shouted to the fighters that I was a Red Cross volunteer and that I was with civilians, but they didn’t hear me.
My son tried to run away from the house. That’s when a bullet hit him in the throat, and he died instantly. It was 5 p.m. and we were all afraid to go and fetch the body, which we could see lying outside… but as his father, I did my best, I did all I could to bring the body back inside…
Despite what happened, I will remain in the Red Cross. I will live and die a Red Cross member. Whatever hardships come my way, I will stay with the Red Cross.