Rebuilding the DRC

Photographs and Text by Jonathan Torgovnik

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ICRC mission to Equateur province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Armed violence in the Equateur Province, in western Democratic Republic of the Congo, forced over 165,000 people to flee in 2009. Approximately 110,000 crossed the Congo River and sought refuge in the Likouala district of the Republic of the Congo while 18,000 fled to the Central African Republic. We recently ventured into the area from which so many people had fled, where the ICRC has been providing support for the local population by helping to rebuild a thousand homes and helping to reunite children with their parents or other relatives from whom they had been separated.

Although residents of Equateur province are now living in relative calm, traces of the violence were apparent not only in the damaged houses but also in the hearts and minds of the local people.

When we arrived in the village of Dongo we met a 13-year-old girl who lost her leg after being shot while fleeing with her family during the armed violence in 2009. She had recently returned from exile with her family, and together they were trying to go back to living a peaceful life. Her physical injury serves as a constant reminder of what happened. The ICRC helped her family to build a new house to replace the one that burnt down during the armed violence. The new house represents a first step on their road to recovery. With the support of the ICRC, the girl went to Kinshasa to be fitted with an artificial limb and has learnt to walk again.

The villages and communities we visited are trying to get back on their feet again, but they still face many challenges. Dongo seemed to be progressing relatively well. Customers and merchants were swarming about in the main market, and a health-care clinic had recently been re-opened in the neighborhood. Residents seemed to be more hopeful about the future.

From Dongo we journeyed through the jungle on foot, on motorbikes, and in canoes towards the area where the armed violence started after a dispute about fishing rights which later spread to inter-community violence and clashes between armed groups and the national armed forces. Access to the two villages at the centre of the dispute – Enyele and Monzaya – is very limited because of the poor condition of the roads, and in some areas the lack of any road at all. The armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are still present in both villages.

During my visit to Dongo, I was lucky to be on hand when a nine-year-old girl was reunited with her uncle after being apart for nearly two years. It was great to see the excitement when they were together again. The girl was separated from her family during the armed violence in 2009, and the fate of her parents is still unknown. It was impressive to see the effort the ICRC put into finding the girl and making arrangements for her return home, which involved a six-hour boat journey up the Ubangi River. The ICRC also gave her new clothes before she rejoined her uncle.

The final leg of our journey was in Saba Saba, where many civilians lost their lives and hundreds of homes were destroyed when the violence spread towards Dongo in 2009. The ICRC has helped the residents of Saba Saba rebuild more than 30 homes. Slowly, people who had been in exile for many months are returning.

In Saba Saba we joined a team of volunteers from the local Congolese Red Cross on a mission to exhume the remains of two farmers who had reportedly been brutally killed as they were returning from their fields. They were later buried at the side of the road. The remains were recovered during our visit to allow relatives to carry out a dignified burial in the village. This was the most emotional part of our visit to the area. The families of the victims were glad to have closure, but the process triggered a lot of emotions, and brought back sad memories of the armed violence, and of family members who were lost. The villagers stood silently as the volunteers gently dug up the ground trying to find the remains. Later they placed the remains on a stretcher and walked to the new burial place, where a short ceremony took place with family members and friends. The women were chanting, some crying. Red Cross volunteers are used to this kind of mission. Their look, as well as every little detail in the way they were removing the bodies, carrying them and burying them again, showed a lot of respect for the dignity of the deceased and their communities.

The cassava project -- on a mission to document the ICRC support for the local population of the Likouala district in Congo.

We often hear the term ‘Food Security’ in news reports on war and conflict torn countries. But what exactly does that term mean and represent for the local population on the ground in those countries? I was privileged to join a team from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on a mission to distribute cassava cuttings tolerant to mosaic disease, a highly destructive virus that infects plants in various regions of Africa, including the Likouala province of the Republic of Congo. This distribution will help prevent depletion of food reserves that will benefit about 100,000 people in the Likouala province. In addition to the cassava cuttings, families received from the ICRC agricultural and fishing equipment.
In October 2009, armed violence in the Equateur province of the North Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had pushed people to flee to the other side of the border and find refuge in the Republic of Congo. At the same time, many were displaced internally within the DRC, and some refugees also fled to the Central Africa Republic. Nearly 115,000 people had crossed the river Oubangui, were they were welcomed and absorbed by residents living on the banks of the Oubangui river in the Likouala province. The arrival of so many refugees presented a big challenge for the local population and posed a huge strain on the food supply and depletion of commodities in the region.
With this distribution, the ICRC aimed to strengthen the economic capacity and food supply of the local resident population of Likouala province who have made a considerable effort to take in their brothers from across the Oubangi river while the refugee population has been benefiting from assistance from other humanitarian organizations.
As soon as I arrived in Congo it was clear how important cassava is for the existence of the Congolese people. It is the main food staple for most of the population. Every meal I had involved cassava ‘bread’ and cassava leaves. The existence of mosaic disease in cassava plants in the isolated Likouala province presented a serious problem in the food supply for both the local population and the increasing numbers of refugee population arriving from the other side of the border.
The first stop in my journey was in Owando, where the ICRC in collaboration with the local Congolese Red Cross are growing cassava plants that are tolerant to the mosaic disease. They were preparing the cassava cuttings that were later flown to the Likouala province, then distributed by canoes, barges, boats, and trucks, in a region that is very difficult to access. The cuttings were distributed to the local population and planted to replenish the diseased stricken local cassava.
It was impressive to see how the ICRC and the Congolese Red Cross go to great length to help people in need. An ICRC plane arrived at the sleepy Owando landing strip, a few dozens of sacks filled with cassava cuttings (branches 50cm in length) were loaded, and the plane took off to Impfondo, in Likouala province. From Impfondo I joined the ICRC team on a long journey struggling with the extreme equatorial heat and rain to distribute the cassava cuttings to residents in remote villages on the shores of the Oubangui river, by canoes, barges, boats, and trucks. The distribution was accompanied by detailed instructions given by ICRC staff to the local population on how to plant the cuttings and how it will benefit them. The families could not hide their excitement after receiving the cuttings and agricultural equipment. Many rushed straight to their fields to start planting the cassava cuttings and use their new tools. I felt that they were most excited about the fact that someone cares about them and their struggles. It gave them confidence to move forward positively with their lives.