International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Driven from home: Aiding Congolese seeking refuge from conflict and cholera

The International Rescue Committee has played a decisive role in containing a major cholera outbreak in the North Kivu Province during the past few weeks. In the midst of massive population displacement caused by intensified armed violence, cholera broke out in two separate rural locations two hours north of provincial capital Goma. 

At a time when the vast majority of national and international organizations evacuated their teams because of rapidly deteriorating security conditions, the IRC kept a minimum but critical presence in the field. Our dedicated staff worked around the clock to ensure that the most vulnerable men, women and children receive the best care available.
 
At the peak of the epidemic over 20 people a day were hospitalized at the Rwanguba General Hospital, where the main Cholera Treatment Center had been set up. The biggest challenge was to keep the hospital well stocked with drugs and clean water at all times. Access proved very difficult as the region was swarming with various armed groups on the move. 
 
Displaced women receiving their free medication from an IRC-supported health center pharmacy in North Kivu
Displaced women receiving their free medication from an IRC-supported health center pharmacy in North Kivu  (Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC) 
 
So far, 641 cases have been treated here, with six deaths recorded. More people received care at various other health centers in the area. 
 
 “Both the doctors and nurses and the communities around are very appreciative of our efforts throughout this crisis,” said the IRC’s Dr. Lievin Bangali, who coordinated the emergency response from the field. “Our presence here meant a lot not only from a medical point of view, but also as a morale boost. People keep telling us how they didn’t feel abandoned when they saw we stayed behind in such difficult conditions.”
 
Apart from providing drugs and equipment to health facilities, the IRC has also worked with local radio stations and community leaders to widely disseminate messages about proper hygiene, as well as to urge everyone to come forward at first signs of sickness.
 
As significant combat operations have been on hold this past week, people are beginning to move back towards their villages. While this is good news, it also has negative side effects: cholera is traveling with them. Cases are now being reported in various remote areas, so the IRC is working hard to reach and stock up all health centers in the region.
 
The doctor on duty prioritizing medical emergencies at an IRC-supported health center in North Kivu.JPG
The doctor on duty prioritizing medical emergencies at an IRC-supported health center in North Kivu  (Photo: Sinziana Demian/IRC) 
 
Over the past few months, since this latest crisis escalated in North Kivu, the IRC has also provided substantial response to sexual violence. In May, for example, the IRC received a 75% increase in caseload, compared to the monthly average of the previous 12 months. Women and girls who fell victim to such abuse and sought assistance received free post-rape medical and psycho-social care. The situation continued to deteriorate in June and July but statistics are hard to come by as psycho-social assistants themselves were displaced. Their efforts to ensure professional and confidential care to survivors of sexual violence are all the more commendable considering the extremely difficult and sensitive circumstances in which they have had to work.
 
It is estimated that more than 200,000 people have been driven away from their homes since April, with further tens of thousands more seeking refuge in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. Although North Kivu has long suffered from armed conflicts, intense volatility and mass displacement, the past few years had been relatively calm, allowing many civilians to gradually rebuild their lives and communities. The latest crisis was triggered by the defection of several high profile army officers and troops, leading to violent clashes throughout the region between rebels and the Congolese Army.
 

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