The long road ahead
Written by Matt Nowland, GRI medical director, currently working alongside our staff in a conflict area in Democratic Republic of Congo.
There is a road in Congo. A road that connects several cities, towns and villages as it runs north and south through the DRC province of North Kivu. Our team travels this road from Butembo south to Lubero each morning and then return to Butembo at the end of each day. We work in Lubero, but stay here in Butembo at night.
The road itself is rugged to say the least. It consists of red dirt with occasional rock and is maintained only by hand and shovel. The drive has been especially fun this week as the rainy season has just started. We rarely pass other vehicles. Only an occasional UN convoy of soldiers sent to this region to keep the peace. There is a marker attached to a small tree about half way between the two towns that marks the location of the equator. The road runs steep as it traverses sections of the Virunga mountains. The landscape is beautiful. It has been carefully sectioned into small plots for growing crops. The bean cabbage, maze and sugar cane plants are easy to recognize. Some fields consist of black dirt; they have just been planted. Workers dot the small sections of land as they tend to each plant.
The drive is made especially fascinating by the endless groups of people that line both sides of our path. The majority of those moving along the road are on foot. Some have bicycles and a few motorcycles. All are carrying something. They transport Irish potatoes, maze, sugar cane, bananas, cabbage and other locally grown crops. Some carry large amounts of wood - some for burning and others for construction. Still others balance large burlap sacks of charcoal on their backs. The ones that own bikes push them while they balance similar products stacked high across the seat and cross bar. The amount they carry is surpassed in achievement only by the kilometers they cover. Their destination are the markets in Butembo which is greater than 15 kilometers for some. Their goal is to sell their goods in the market, make their own purchases and return back home.
The process is vital to the local economy and to health of the people in the area. As we proceed further south each morning, the continuous line of people eventually thins and then stops. Until recently, those traveling north would have transitioned to individuals and families headed south to the markets in Lubero. However, the rebel activity just south of there has decimated the market. The conflict near Lubero has affected trade and the availability of goods in multiple ways. Because of the conflict in the larger area south of Lubero, there are no crops being planted or harvested. Even if the locals are able to raise a crop, it is not safe to travel north to sell their goods.
The roads south of Lubero are empty. The conflict has also displaced thousands of people - most of whom have fled to the town of Lubero. Thus, Lubero now has a huge influx of displaced people and a shortage of food. This situation has also had an enormous impact on the already poor medical care system in Lubero. The general hospital which was constructed in the 1920s has been overran by displaced people. Supplies and adequate; personnel are seriously lacking. This crisis is likely to worsen as the fighting is not likely to end soon and new displaced people are arriving each day.
Global Refuge International staff started caring for those displaced individuals in need earlier this week. So far, we have encountered many adults and children suffering from dysentery and other tropical conditions so common among the vulnerable populations in this part of the world. We are also seeing injuries suffered during the trek north that have remained untreated for weeks. Many of the children are already showing signs of malnutrition. This aspect is likely to worsen as the situation becomes more desperate.
In addition to providing staff, supplies and medications to displaced people, GRI also plans to start a medic training program to help care for those people trapped in the conflict area. The suffering is likely to continue in this region, but hopefully the work that GRI has undertaken will make the long road ahead a little easier for those touched by our work.
-Dr. Matt Nowland