January 16, 2006
Between August and November 2005, a succession of attacks and military operations forced nearly 80,000 people to flee their villages in central Katanga. Over a third of the displaced population fled towards the remote areas of lake Upemba next to the Upemba National Park, on the western side of Katanga. Much of this zone is mosquito infested marshland, only accessible by boat, and in some cases only by pirogue(dug-out canoe). Currently, 35,000 displaced villagers are dispersed along the eastern and western shores of lake Upemba and on the banks of the Lufira river on the northern side of the lake. They fled their homes one to two months ago, after their villages were attacked and burned down. But until January, no form of relief had reached these people, probably due to the difficulty in accessing the isolated marshlands.
Health Center for the Displaced in Nyonga
In January 2006, MSF opened a health center in Nyonga, on the western bank of lake Upemba, in order to provide basic health care for people fleeing the violence as well as for the local population. The health center includes 10 beds for the short-term hospitalization of patients, as well as maternal care. Medical complications are transferred to a hospital in Kikondja, where MSF gives a donation of medicine and medical material for the correct treatment of the patients. The MSF teams are also organizing a measles-vaccination campaign for 8,000 displaced children around Lake Upemba, and the distribution of relief items such as fishing nets, plastic sheeting, blankets, mosquito nets, cooking sets, and jerry cans for the most vulnerable families.
Though most of the families fleeing the violence have been hosted and helped by local villagers, nearly 16,000 displaced people are living in terrible conditions without shelter or sanitation facilities, and lack basic items such as clothes, blankets, and soap. Approximately 8,000 people are living on "floating islands" in the middle of the swamps, and manage to survive on the fish they catch each day. However, from January until March, seasonal fishing restrictions will hinder people's capacity to cope. Additionally, as the rainy season starts to settle in, the lake shores as well as the dozens of small islands where people have found refuge risk being inundated by the rising waters, in which case the displaced will be forced to move again.
New Cholera Outbreak
As our team began setting up relief operations for the displaced in Nyonga-Upemba, news arrived of a cholera outbreak in Kikondja, 35 miles north of Nyonga.
Since the December 1, 2005, there has been a cholera epidemic on the shores of the Congo river in Ankoro, northern Katanga, where MSF has rehabilitated and supports the general referral hospital. Since then MSF has treated 120 cholera patients in Ankoro and surrounding villages. Though the number of cholera patients being admitted each week in Ankoro is decreasing, another outbreak has just started in Kikondja and Mangi, hundreds of miles south of Ankoro, and 35 miles north of Nyonga (Upemba).
MSF has deployed an additional emergency team in order to deal with this new cholera outbreak. In 10 days, 340 patients were admitted into the two cholera treatment centers set up in Kikondja and Mangi, with 12 people dying. Cholera is endemic in this region, and outbreaks occur on a cyclical basis every few years. The last epidemic in this region was in 2002, when MSF teams treated 4,470 cholera patients in eight months. The precarious living conditions of the displaced in the marshlands around Upemba lake, leave them particularly vulnerable to this type of contagious disease.
Upemba is MSF's fifth relief operation this year for people fleeing the recent violence in Katanga. MSF teams are also present in Mukubu, Pweto, Dubie, and Mitwaba, bringing relief to tens of thousands of displaced who have fled attacks from Mai Mai militia and government troops. Though Katanga, a province the size of France, has been the setting of violent conflict for several years, it has received little international attention, and relatively few organizations currently provide much needed relief to the affected population.
© 2013 Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)