16 April 2012, Shabunda, DRC: Gilbert Sengamali (center) from OCHA Bukavu with representatives from NGOs arriving in remote Kolula. Credit: OCHA / Philippe Kropf
Crammed into a four-wheel-drive car, OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer Gilbert Sengamali and colleagues from the UN and local NGOs are on their way from Bukavu in South Kivu to the Shabunda region, where they will assess the needs of displaced people. Ongoing conflict in this part of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
Reaching the airport outside Bukavu, the team embarks on a 40-minute flight over a seemingly impenetrable jungle canopy. UN agencies and NGOs in DRC rely heavily on helicopters and protection from the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO
, when travelling to remote parts of the vast country. Access remains a key challenge in the region, and armed groups have increasingly targeted humanitarian workers, often brutally, since 2008.
Military attacks, sexual violence and the ransacking of villages by armed groups have led to massive displacements in the Kivus; more than 220,000 people fled their homes and villages in South Kivu in the first three months of 2012. Of these people, an estimated 50,000 were in the Shabunda region, where clashes between the armed groups and the Raia Mtomboki (militia groups defending the villages) further threaten security and lives. NGOs working in this area report that people from 17 villages have fled to the forest, and many health centres and schools were closed for more than a month.
In Shabunda, the team plans to verify the displacement reports and evaluate the urgent humanitarian needs of the affected communities. These assessments are a critical part of ensuring that the right type of help and support is provided to people in need.
A crowd of about 500 people, including the village elder, greets them at the landing strip. “Welcome,” says the elder. “We are happy you have come to hear about our problems.”
After explaining the mission’s goal, the team heads into the village to interview people about issues including food security, displacement, protection, health and education. The team also talks to the head of police, to teachers and to displaced people to get a better sense of the humanitarian situation.
Sitting on an improvised school bench, Gilbert meets with more than 20 teachers in the village’s schoolhouse. He asks them about the number of children enrolled in the village’s schools, if the schools are functional, how long they were closed due to attacks and how many schoolchildren have been displaced. In the next hour, he learns not only about the state of the schools, but also about the villagers and how they continue to live in fear of attack.
In front of the school, Gilbert is introduced to a young man in a red tracksuit who the villagers say is the local commander of the Raia Mtomboki.
“He said that this village was attacked seven times and that the Government does nothing to protect them,” Gilbert explains, after a short exchange in Swahili. “I explained the goal of our humanitarian mission once again, and said that we have nothing to do with the military.”
After conducting the needs assessment, the team members head back to Bukavu to discuss their findings. The information they have gathered will help them to develop a better understanding of the humanitarian and security situation, and the pressing needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been affected. Timely and credible needs assessments and information analysis play a vital part in enabling humanitarian organizations to plan and implement the right response to a crisis.
Reporting by Philippe Kropf/ OCHA DRC