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Hunger and terror lurk in the green fields of DRC

Unrest in Democratic Republic of Congo has not abated following the disarming of militias ahead of recent ground-breaking elections. As Stephanie Savariaud illustrates, post-war fighting still uproots many and creates food insecurity in this green and lush country.

Unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo has not abated following the disarming of militias ahead of recent ground-breaking elections. As Stephanie Savariaud illustrates, post-war fighting still uproots many and creates food insecurity in this green and lush country.

What’s worse and more unforgivable than the torment endured daily by tens of thousands of civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo?

Torment that lasts for years, until much of the outside world almost accepts it as usual and stops caring.

DRC cannot afford to have the international community turn its back after the electoral process
Claude Jibidar, WFP Deputy Country Director in DRC
Trenches dating back to fighting in 2003 snake among makeshift huts in Dele camp on the outskirts of Bunia where 10,000 people uprooted by violence from their homes, have sought refuge.

The armed groups battling it out today are not exactly the same as three years ago. But for the people stuck in Dele camp, nothing much has changed in all these years, and their stories are the same as in 2003.

Invisible suffering

The suffering, the wasted years in human lives piled year upon year, is invisible but no less painful for people trapped in eastern DRC.

Three years ago, a Public Information Officer for WFP visited IDPs in Bunia and quoted one woman as saying: “Militiamen came with their weapons and stole our beans and chased us from the field.”

The PI officer wrote: “Marie-Louise left with nothing but her three daughters…she spent three nights hiding in the forest with nothing to eat.”

History repeating itself

On a visit three years later, I met people who said virtually the same thing. Again people are displaced by fighting and harassed when they try to tend to their fields. They have to surrender food to armed men at checkpoints. They live in constant fear of being forced to leave.

“We saw the smoke from other villages. Militias were starting to burn them, so we had to go,” says 60-year-old Monique Nobi.

“What do you want me to do at my age? People helped me to build my hut here, but it has holes and when it rains it’s difficult. I had just started planting manioc, potatoes, beans and maize in my village,” Monique recalls.

Fields neglected

It is planting season in Ituri province but people such as Monique cannot go to their fields and if they return soon they may not be able to harvest because of constant harassment by armed men.

Villagers say they are asked for papers authorising them to go to their fields.

Copyright: 2006 WFP/Susan Schulman

In most places I travel to in Africa with WFP, I hear people saying that this is the worst harvest in decades, or that it hasn’t rained for months or that locusts have eaten everything.

But in DRC, it is frustrating to see such a green country, in the middle of planting season, where people who could feed themselves and perhaps half the continent are unable to move or farm.

Militias

Albertine Gaboussi has brought her granddaughter, Cecile, who is suffering from severe malnutrition to a nutritional centre run by the Italian NGO COOPI.

Albertine says her family has been displaced for five years. Cecile was a toddler when they were first forced to leave.

“We were at the market when we saw smoke coming from the village. Some militias had settled there and government troops came to chase them. So we left straight away for the forest where we spent almost a year,” says Albertine.

Albertine and her family have been able to return to their village but have had to flee five times

Abduction

Albertine says her daughter was abducted by militiamen when she was about 12 and that rapes are common.

“After it happens, they even steal your clothes,” she says.

Joseph Kasuigi’s son is also being treated by COOPI staff in Bunia. He says threats from militias forced them to leave their home village of Gety months ago and hide out for two months in the forest.

Finally they were able to return, but his two sons were very sick. His five-year-old son died just after they reached Bunia while his two-year-old got better.

Makeshift camp

Some 45,000 people are now sheltering in a makeshift camp in Gety, unable to reach their fields a few kilometres away because of constant insecurity, according to WFP.

Francois Djissou, head of WFP’s sub-office in Bunia, says when WFP first visited Gety there were about 2,000 displaced families, but after a food distribution another 8,000 people arrived.

“The number of people has been growing constantly, and there are about 45,000 now,” he says.

Distributions

WFP distributed 297 metric tons of food to nearly 72,000 people in Ituri, including the displaced in Gety, in July this year.

WFP plans to provide 1,800 tons of food per month from September to December for the 150,000 IDPs and malnourished people in the province.

But even if the security situation improves, people will need continuous support for an extended time.

Even if they can return, most will find their houses burned and will have missed the planting season. So they need food aid and farming tools and seeds for the next season.

"We wish we could be assisting those people to rebuild their houses, grow the food they will need for next year, treat their sick children and educate them -- instead of using the resources today just to keep them alive for another month,” says Claude Jibidar, WFP Deputy Country Director in DRC.

Glimmer of hope

The situation however isn’t totally bleak. In Katanga province in the southeast, thousands of people were displaced this year and WFP had to resort to airdrops to reach as many as possible.

Now people in IDPs have started returning to rebuild their homes after the security situation improved.

WFP plans to help them with food aid. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization will provide them with seeds and farming tools.

Last month, DRC had its first free and democratic elections, aimed to complete the three-year period of political transition following a five-year civil war that claimed nearly five million lives.

Results are not yet known, but whatever the outcome, humanitarian needs will still be immense in this country as big as Europe.

Post-election

“DRC cannot afford to have the international community turn its back after the electoral process,” says Jibidar.

“The needs are going to be even greater. Population movements will continue as people flee or want to return home. The country has huge needs but it can have an extraordinary impact on the future of the African continent,” he added.

Due to WFP's lack of funds at the beginning of the year and subsequent ration cuts, the monthly average of food distribution in DRC has fallen from 6,500 tons in 2005 to 4,500 tons in 2006 while needs have increased, particularly among IDPs.

WFP has so far received US$101 million out of US$253 million required for its relief and recovery operation in DRC, from January 2004 until June 2007. Over the next 12 months, WFP aims to feed 1 million people in DRC.