June 06, 2013

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is now running mobile clinic services to some 5,000 people who took refuge in a stadium near Goma, in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu province, following late May clashes between the Congolese Army and the M23 rebel group. This is in addition to work MSF is already doing in the Bulengo and Mugunga III camps for people displaced by fighting.

Teams were able to restart activities after a recent 24-hour pause due to security concerns. The overall security situation in the area nevertheless remains volatile, and humanitarian needs are pressing.

The Sotraki Camp

The 5,000 people at Sotraki Stadium were taken there after they’d spent several nights in schools and parishes outside Goma. Having people in one place, the thinking went, would facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid.

The people were clearly in need. “The shells were falling on houses,” says a woman named Gertrude of the fighting that drove her, her five children, and 10 nieces and nephews to flee their village. “My house was destroyed and I couldn’t take a thing with me.”

Some displaced people hastily gathered a few personal effects such as pans or clothes, but the majority had to flee too quickly to bring anything with them. Many said they were hungry, having not eaten for several days. Some were separated from their families. And most of the people had been in the same position before, having been forced out of their homes during fighting last November and before that in 2008.

MSF established a mobile clinic in the stadium as soon as the displaced persons arrived, and teams there have been treating more than 100 people per day. “One-quarter of the illnesses we are treating are cases of diarrhea, mostly children under five years old,” said Carolina Lopez, MSF emergency coordinator. “Thirty-five percent of patients are seeing us for acute respiratory infections, which affect adults and children equally. Many of these illnesses are due to night after night of sleeping under the stars. Overcrowding, uncleanliness, dust—all of this breeds these illnesses.”

MSF is also trying to prevent an outbreak of cholera. “There are already patients suffering from cholera in other camps outside Goma,” says Lopez. “We absolutely have to avoid the spread of this disease.” MSF has, in fact, been running a cholera treatment center for several months now at the Buhimba refugee camp.

Needs, Fears Still Widespread Elsewhere

The needs are equally widespread in the Bulengo displacement camp, which sprung up after the fighting last November and where an MSF team is providing primary care, vaccinations, and maternal health services. Bulengo is an unofficial site, however, which therefore receives aid from humanitarian organizations only sporadically. Security is precarious on the camp’s perimeter as well. These factors have combined to limit distributions of essential items. “We need plastic sheeting most of all,” says a woman name Sifa, who lives in the camp. “Some people did get some some, but it’s been all torn up for a long time now.”

Armed, uniformed men remain present in the surrounding areas, which is a source of concern for families. Sexual assault, in particular, is a worry. Sexual assault has been distressingly commonplace at Bulengo; there have been 114 rapes reported since December 2012, and others likely go unreported. “You can’t go for firewood in the forest, because you might get raped, so we have to sell corn to buy charcoal for cooking,” a woman named Siada said.

Similar circumstances prevail at the Mugunga III camp, where medical teams observed a massive increase in sexual assaults just after the clashes, occasionally treating as many as 28 female patients a day. Rapes generally occur outside the camps, near the front lines.

Crime is also common in the areas surrounding the camps. A woman and her baby were seriously injured recently, during an assault several hundred meters from the entrance to Bulengo.

MSF is providing primary and secondary health care in North Kivu Province. On the outskirts of Goma, MSF is working in the camps at Bulengo and Mugunga III and, since the end of May, in Sotraki Stadium as well. Elsewhere in North Kivu, the organization is supporting referral hospitals in Mweso, Pinga, Masisi, Rutshuru, Walikale, and Kitchanga, working in health centers, and operating mobile clinics.

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