Fighting in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo has dramatically intensified in the past couple of months, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to flee from their homes and from makeshift camps they had created after previous fighting.
In the provinces of North and South Kivu and Orientale, an estimated 1.4 million IDPs are in need of food and other humanitarian assistance. Approximately 250,000 people have recently been displaced in the province of North Kivu.
Meanwhile, in the northern province of Orientale, two separate conflicts have also prompted renewed concern. As many as 140,000 people have been displaced by fighting between Congolese forces and militias around the town of Bunia; while new atrocities committed by Uganda’s Lords Resistance Army near the Sudanese border have forced about 60,000 Congolese to flee their homes.
Charles Vincent was WFP’s Country Director in DRC until a few weeks ago. He spoke with us in Geneva, where he now heads the WFP liaison office to the UN.
Q: What news are you hearing from WFP’s team in DRC?
A: I spoke to our team in the field and the humanitarian situation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) is critical. In North Kivu, events in the last couple of months have led to approximately 250,000 additional IDP’s. The major problem that WFP faces is a lack of security which prevents access to affected people. Fighting is continuing between rival groups in Rutshuru, north of Goma. Movement remains limited outside of Goma. In response, WFP is distributing food assistance to more than 135,000 people simultaneously in 6 camps outside of Goma. In total, WFP estimates that in North Kivu 500,000 IDPs are in need of assistance and are – or could be – accessible. An estimated 650,000 additional IDPs are not accessible yet and WFP estimates that almost all are in need of humanitarian assistance, including food.
Q: Some news reports have quoted IDPs complaining of a lack of food. What’s happening?
A: The food WFP has distributed has been to people in camps around Goma, in relatively easy reach. WFP has delivered food for the past year to people in very remote locations – sometimes with commercial trucks, sometimes with WFP trucks escorted by UN peacekeepers. The problem in the last weeks is that major combat between parties has prevented WFP from making regular distributions. We know people are hungry. We know people want food. We will begin distributions as soon as it is safe to do so.
WFP faced a recent incident when the wives of some soldiers who had themselves not eaten, demanded food. Two trucks were looted, but the IDPs themselves protected the remaining trucks, knowing that food was intended for them. The young children, women, old and young, those carrying packs and fleeing are naturally in a weakened state and it is WFP’s intention to reach them as quickly as possible.
Q: You were WFP’s country director in DRC until very recently. What is different about the current situation, from what you’ve seen?
A: Well, in the last few months that I was there, it had started to deteriorate. WFP advised the international community of the increased numbers of IDPs as WFP discovered them while delivering food assistance to the most vulnerable. The events of the last two weeks are clearly the worst we’ve seen in the last two-and-a-half to three years. Two years ago, we had estimated needs in North Kivu at around 1,000 to 2,000 metric tons of food per month. We now have needs of over 10,000 metric tons a month, and now the situation is compounded by new needs in north-eastern DRC.
Q: Do you have the food you need?
A: No. We have sufficient stocks in Goma to cover a limited but immediate response. But in the medium term – December, January, February, March – is critical, with new contributions required to deliver food from far away places to eastern DRC to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance. The many news reporters on the scene have shown that people’s first stated need is food.
Another challenge is the lack of partners, because of a lack of security and logistical constraints. WFP works with non-governmental organizations, which include church groups and others, who can deploy staff on the ground to monitor distributions to ensure that the most vulnerable people receive the food in the right quantity.
WFP has a fleet of trucks ready to delivery humanitarian assistance – not only food – enabling an integrated logistical response to the humanitarian crisis.
Q: What do you expect to happen in the coming days/weeks?
A: The first requirement is that WFP needs safe passage for humanitarian workers and assistance to the areas known to be in the greatest need, to be able to evaluate accurately the needs and affect distribution to the most vulnerable. Second, is a strong response from donors to provide the necessary funding to allow WFP to buy food in the region to deliver very quickly to affected areas. WFP expects to receive substantial quantities of food assistance from the United States in early 2009. We are also encouraged by ECHO’s (the European Commissions Humanitarian Aid Office) contribution this week of 2.3 million euros, equivalent to US$3.1 million.
Q: What is WFP able to do about the growing emergency in Orientale Province?
A: WFP is trying to set up an air bridge to the north-eastern part of DRC to bring urgently needed relief assistance, while WFP organizes land convoys through Uganda or Sudan, to reach the affected area.