International Medical Corps recently deployed an emergency response team to Ituri in the northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where inter-communal tensions have exploded into brutal violence in communities once considered relatively stable. More than 300,000 people have fled their homes to escape gangs wielding machetes, guns and other weapons. We spoke with Mike McCusker from our Emergency Response Unit about what he witnessed in Ituri, an extremely deprived region where demand far outreaches the supply of critical health services.
“You walk into Ituri’s Internally Displaced Camp and see a population living in far-too-close quarters in deplorable living conditions in very makeshift bamboo huts. It’s the rainy season and they are living on an inclined mound, so when it rains, sewage, dirty water and rubbish comes all around them. It’s a very chaotic environment. People are cooking whatever they can (roots, leaves, etc.). The toilets are an absolute mess; the water systems are overflowing. And I have to take a minute before I walk in to really get a sense of what it would be like to live there for five minutes, let alone five months.”
-Mike McCusker, Emergency Response Unit
The displaced Congolese in Ituri are predominantly subsistence farmers who are missing the critical planting season. Though their livelihoods are being severely affected, they are too scared to go back to their villages of origin to cultivate their crops due to prolonged tribal conflict.
When people in the camp speak to Mike, they tell him they need everything: food, clean water, sanitation services. They want an education for their children, who have missed three cycles of school. They want protection, especially for their children who feel vulnerable and exposed in an unsafe environment. They are living with strangers with very little protection, and with limited or no access to any basic services. Women and young girls experience severe instances of gender-based violence, both while on the run and when confined to camp living. Says Mike:
“They don’t know how long they are going to be there themselves, but they know that they would rather be there—in pure survival mode, in desperate living conditions, getting every major illness you can imagine—than return to the areas where fighting has erupted.”
International Medical Corps has deployed two mobile medical units to Ituri, each with one doctor, two nurses and a number of community-outreach health workers. Our team is working to identify the most pressing needs in Ituri and expanding services in healthcare and nutrition, while working to prevent gender-based violence and provide treatment for survivors.
The number of those in need of dire humanitarian assistance in DRC has doubled over the last year, to 13 million people, with 2 million children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The country suffers from “donor fatigue”—struggling to maintain reliable sources of humanitarian funding and hovering at a precarious tipping point year after year. Says Mike:
“DRC doesn’t get the global media attention or funding that it deserves, largely because it’s chronically overlooked and underserved—meaning many people are dying from preventable causes. The displacement numbers, which rival Syria and Yemen, just don’t reach headline level. But actually, in recent humanitarian literature, DRC is forecast to be the #1 global crisis in 2018.”
Despite the emergencies rarely reaching headlines, International Medical Corps has worked tirelessly in DRC since 1999, reaching conflict-affected populations in the most underserved areas. Through Mike’s firsthand accounts from Ituri, we will continue to call the world’s attention to this forgotten crisis. Stay tuned in the coming months as we continue to reach those most in need and report back on events unfolding in Ituri.
13 million people in DRC are currently in dire need of humanitarian relief.
5 million people do not have enough food to eat, and more than 2 million children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Disease affects tens of thousands of Congolese every year.
In 2017, as increased violence forced people from their homes and limited access to clean water and healthcare, an outbreak of cholera was the worst the nation had seen in 15 years.
More than 57% of women in the DRC have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.