The brutal wars in Ukraine and Sudan have drawn global attention. As an Emergency Project Coordinator with Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) who has worked in both of those countries, I have seen the urgent need to save, repair, and nourish human life. But another devastating humanitarian conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has received far less visibility, resources, or support.
For more than a year, the eastern DRC has experienced one of the world’s most acute humanitarian emergencies. Fighting between the March 23 Movement, M23, rebel group and the Congolese army along with several other armed groups has exacerbated the longstanding and widespread insecurity and political unrest which eastern DRC has experienced for decades.
A Crisis Within a Crisis
To understand the consequences of this crisis within a crisis, one only needs to hear the blaring sirens which increase in frequency each day. More than 2.5 million people have been displaced in eastern DRC’s North-Kivu province, epidemics of cholera and measles are widespread, and sexual violence has become alarmingly common. To add to that, food shortages also loom. Most displaced and host communities in eastern DRC say they are struggling to secure even one meal a day, and when they do the nutritional quality is meagre. This year alone, MSF has treated more than 20,500 girls and boys at nutritional centers across the region.
During a recent visit to a displacement camp called Nzulo, I spoke with 80-year-old Vumiliya Kahindo, who was seated on the volcanic rock outside her shelter. As we spoke, the wind rattled the torn plastic bags and fragile sticks that served as her roof. I asked her: “If there was one thing you could tell leaders around the world about what’s happening here, what would it be?” The look in her eyes was serious and withered as she replied. “I’m old and life is so difficult, but I deal with it. But please, if you can do anything, please feed and take care of our children.”
The Need for Support from the International Community
Yet world leaders and those holding the purse strings to a large-scale humanitarian surge have remained largely on the side lines. Food distributions are erratic or insufficient at best, and non-existent at worst. While the situation has improved slightly in recent months, U.S. funding to continue and enhance such critical distributions managed by the World Food Programme has yet to be allocated past September. A recent nutritional analysis conducted by MSF teams in one of the displacement sites found nearly 5 percent of children under five years of age suffer from several acute malnutrition, surpassing emergency thresholds. One in four children at this site have been admitted to therapeutic feeding programs, which help to treat those with severe malnutrition.
Shelter is also a problem. Over a dozen camps hosting more than 600,000 people in and around the provincial capital of Goma lack basic coordination structures to organize everything from protection to health, sanitation, water, and logistics – which have traditionally fallen under the responsibility of local authorities and the United Nations’ migration or refugee agencies. A simple diagnosis of which U.N. agency or NGO is providing what type of assistance in a given area doesn’t exist in many locations affected by the crisis, yet it’s a standard and essential coordination tool in any humanitarian response. As a result, little is being done to improve the unsanitary conditions or rudimentary shelters that remain well below minimum humanitarian standards.
The lack of shelter also raises security risks. In early May, MSF reported treating nearly 50 new rape victims a day across our medical facilities in and around Goma. Victims are most often assaulted outside the camps while searching for food or firewood for cooking.
Since MSF raised the alarm about sexual violence and the crisis as a whole, a slew of diplomats, U.N. officials, and local authorities have visited and expressed shock and empathy at what they saw, and at what they heard. But they left without any concrete action to follow. Recently, the U.N. appears poised to scale-up its response after raising the crisis to its highest severity level on June 16. While positive, such promises are meaningless if they aren’t accompanied by tangible and significant humanitarian aid in the form of food, clean water, appropriate sanitation and shelter, and essential services and the coordination to properly distribute them.