DR Congo: MSF Vaccination Used as Bait in Unacceptable Attack on Civilians

Kinshasa, November 6, 2009 – Last month, seven vaccination sites operated by the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) came under fire during attacks by the Congolese army against the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Thousands of civilians had gathered at the sites. MSF denounces this clearly unacceptable abuse of humanitarian aid for military purposes.

MSF launched a mass vaccination campaign in Masisi district to support the Congolese ministry of health in its response to a measles epidemic. On October 17, MSF medical teams were vaccinating thousands of children in seven different sites in Ngomashi and Kimua Zones, controlled at the time by the FDLR.

All parties to the conflict had given security guarantees to MSF to vaccinate at these locations at those times. However, the Congolese national army launched attacks on each of the vaccination sites. All the people who had come to get their children vaccinated were forced to flee the heavy fighting. Scattering everywhere, they are now in unknown locations and thus cannot be vaccinated. MSF had to stop its activities in the zones and evacuate its teams to Goma, the regional capital of North Kivu.

“We feel we were used as bait,” said Luis Encinas, head of MSF programs in Central Africa. “The attacks coincided with the beginning of our vaccination and put the lives of civilians in extreme risk. Thousands of people, and the MSF teams, were trapped in the gunfire. The attack was an unacceptable abuse of humanitarian action to fulfil military objectives. How will MSF be perceived by the population now? Will our patients still feel safe enough to access medical care? We are compelled to strongly denounce this situation as such actions seriously compromise our neutrality.”

MSF is an independent medical, humanitarian organisation that delivers impartial medical aid according to the strictest principles of neutrality. It is this neutrality that makes it possible for MSF teams to vaccinate in such FDLR-controlled zones, which, until that point, had been inaccessible to Ministry of Health staff.

In addition, the last few months have seen a worrying increase in attacks against humanitarian organisations by various armed groups in North and South Kivu.

“MSF demands that all parties to a conflict respect the work of humanitarian organisations,” added Meinie Nicolai, MSF director of operations. “If not, it is the populations who pay the price. Those already overwhelmed by extreme violence and endless displacement are the ones who may end up cut off from humanitarian assistance.”

A total of 165,000 children, aged from six months to 15 years, were vaccinated against measles during the campaign in the Masisi region before and following the attacks. In Masisi town, MSF supports a hospital, a health center, runs mobile clinics, and provides vaccinations. The organization operates clinics and supports hospitals in other parts of Masisi District. MSF also brings medical care to people in Walikale, Rutshuru, and Lubero Districts, as well as in South Kivu Province. MSF has worked in North Kivu since 1992.