Article and Photography by Sinziana Demian/The IRC
SOUTH KIVU PROVINCE, Democratic Republic of Congo – The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is intensifying its emergency response throughout the province in order to address the needs of hundreds of thousands of recent internally displaced people here as a result of increased fighting among various armed actors.
During the first three months of 2012 alone, more than 220,000 people had to flee their homes due to attacks and reprisal attacks perpetrated by both foreign rebel groups and local resistance groups active in the province. This brought the total tally of displaced people in South Kivu to more than 856,000.
When forced out of their homes, men, women and children have to walk for up to several days, often through very rough, unstable areas, in order to find a place to temporarily settle. There are no camps in South Kivu, so people typically find refuge with host families. Living conditions become almost unbearable, as 10-15 people must share a crammed hut and very sparse resources. Access to basic services, such as health and education, is largely unavailable. Even if health centres and schools exist as such, the fees are often prohibitive for people who had to leave everything behind and have no source of income.
The IRC is one of only three humanitarian-relief agencies in South Kivu that conducts both field evaluations and directly intervenes to help the displaced and host families with essential household items, water and sanitation. Since January, through its UNICEF-funded Rapid Response to Population Movements (RRMP) program, the IRC has assisted more than 37,000 people with objects of first necessity, such as mattresses or mats, blankets, clothing, cooking utensils and soap.
Another article in high demand that the IRC helps supply is iron sheeting for construction. As many displaced people cannot return to their original homes due to persisting insecurity, they eventually have to settle elsewhere and start building houses. A roof covered with iron sheets will offer much better and longer protection than a thatched roof that has to be changed after every rainy season.
“The needs are enormous, so we are currently intervening at twice the pace we had initially envisaged for this year,” said Olivier Corbet, the coordinator of IRC’s RRMP program. “We have a global mandate to assist the displaced, so we are not concentrating on any one area or any one crisis in particular, but working to help the people that are in most need of help.”
South Kivu is a province long marred by armed conflict and large population displacements. Despite multiple peace and integration agreements – the latest in 2009 -, dozens of armed groups continue to engage in combat against each other and the Congolese Army. Civilians are either caught in the middle or directly targeted in attacks and reprisal attacks. Over the last 12 months the most affected districts have been Shabunda and Kalehe in the North and Fizi in the South. The IRC has offered emergency response in all these areas, often overcoming enormous challenges such as very poor access or chronic instability. In 2011 the IRC conducted 79 evaluations and directly assisted 218,000 people, half of whom are children.
Typically, an IRC evaluation team spends a few days in an area affected by displacement to assess the gravity of the situation and how to best respond to specific needs. The IRC then shares its findings and recommendations with all aid-relief organisations in the province, and it only directly intervenes when no one else is able to do so.
“The reality is that very few actors have emergency or quick response capabilities, so often the IRC is the first, the only, and the last NGO that can offer direct assistance,” said Corbet.