By Aaron Brent, Senior Humanitarian Team Leader, CARE International
We slip and slide through bottomless sand pits, crawling along five kilometres per hour until our car suddenly jolts to a stop. We are on our way back from the area of Kabeya Kamuanaga, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where we conducted sexual and reproductive health training sessions. After a few rounds of cursing and shouting from the driver, the car starts again with a million blinking lights on the dashboard. This pattern repeats itself multiple times until the car will start no further. It’s early evening and the sun is slowly sinking into the horizon.
The CARE DRC team with the broken down car on their way back from training sessions. Photo: CARE/Aaron Brent
We all stand around the car, acting like we might actually know what’s wrong and stomping around on the dusty road, wondering who is to blame. I wish I could say this is our first bump in the road… but simply put, it is not.
How did I end up here? I came to support our CARE DRC team to plan our emergency response to help people affected by the brutal conflict in Kasai Oriental province. But just getting here is a story in itself: A day after leaving CARE’s headquarters in Geneva I finally arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, where a friendly driver named Dieudonné picked me up in the morning. He drove me three hours through the green rolling hills of Rwanda, teeming with small farms and Rwandans going peacefully about their business. We arrived soon in Gisenye, the Rwandan town that sits on the border with DRC.
Getting across the border into the DRC, however, is far from self-explanatory. A driver from CARE’s office in Goma had to come to pick me up and help me navigate through the myriad of completely random booths and stands where one has to get various bits of papers stamped. Luckily my papers were all in order and I could proceed. Without further ado, I got whisked away to CARE’s office situated in the middle of Goma, where we spent the day meeting with various humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies.
Next, we gathered tickets and rushed to Goma Airport where a plane would take us down to the town of Mbuji Mayi in Kasai Oriental. Or so we thought. At the airport we hustled past another gauntlet of random booths, taxes and various authorities before reaching the finish line. Just before getting on, officials tell us the plane will not go to Mbuji Mayi but will stop in another town called Kananga. So we ended up stranded in the middle of the DR Congo, in a town that was overrun by fighting between the military and armed groups just a few months ago. My colleague David makes phone calls frantically until he finds a friend working at a fellow aid organization who can find us a place to sleep.
I was all too thankful when we made it to Mbuji Mayi via plane the next day. Though only 160 kilometres located from each other, it would take a good driver with a sturdy 4x4 vehicle up to seven or eight hours to drive the distance from Kananga. My back would not withstand that as the roads in the Kasai region are something to behold. This makes the Kasai provinces extremely difficult to access from the rest of the DRC. One has to imagine the extreme geographical dimension of the DRC: it is an area as large as Western Europe, with very few paved roads. Getting aid to a remote area like Kasai involves a huge logistical operation.
We were going to spend a week in the area, to carry out some of the first emergency response activities. The fighting in the Kasai provinces has resulted in a situation where rapes and sexual violence have become a norm. The local health system is overwhelmed by this and has extremely limited means to deal with survivors. CARE’s emergency response activities will thus focus on training health personnel to treat survivors, not only with immediate medical care but with psychosocial and legal support as well.
Early the next morning we headed off to the field, towards the health centre in an area called Chilundu. Less than a month ago, the entire area was the scene of conflict where armed forces were challenging the government’s grip on the area. We trundled onwards on the dusty track, winding through villages perched on narrow ridges where erosion has created massive gullies that we wound precariously past.
The gullies didn’t get there by themselves. Kasai Oriental possesses massive amounts of industrial diamonds. People have told us stories of how after heavy rains, everyone will go out looking for the diamonds that have washed up. For decades now, people in the region have progressively abandoned agriculture and other activities to etch out a living digging in the ground for the diamonds, in the hope of the one big find that will make them rich. Alas, very few will succeed in this endeavour. In the 1960s, some estimates say this region produced 80 percent of the world’s industrial diamonds, even though the boom days seem long past, people still continue to hope.
Typical houses in the Health Zone, DRC. Photo: CARE/Aaron Brent
Finally we arrived at the Office of the Health Zone. It’s one of the only buildings in the area built with concrete blocks. Most people’s houses are tiny affairs, maybe four meters by four meters at the largest, build out of unfired red clay bricks with smart thatch roofs. Here we will conduct the sexual and reproductive health training sessions.
During the training session, I took some time to talk to a local women. She was a bit nervous and didn’t want me to use her name for fear of retribution. She gently explained her story in a firm but quiet voice. She remembered the exact day the fighting started in her town, she witnessed two boys being shot. She hid in her house during the fighting but finally decided to slip out and move to her parents’ house. “But even in my parents’ house, I didn’t feel safe,” she said. “One night at around 3am we slipped out of the house leaving all belongings and fled into the surrounding bush, where we lived for a month. It was tough to find things to eat during this time.” Finally, after several months they were able to come back to their house.
The day went by quickly before we had to head back to the town of Mbuji Mayi by nightfall. Although the area we were in was calm at the time, there was fighting all around between the government and armed rebel groups just a couple of months ago. Far too often in this part of the world, many of the rebel combatants are child soldiers, as young as twelve, pressured into fighting for survival. One person I would meet later referred consistently to the armed forces as the “enfants” or children. Fortunately, the situation was no longer dangerous for us as the conflict has died down in the area we were in. Nonetheless, it was still eerie to drive through regions which, just weeks ago were home to bloody conflicts.
On the long back breaking ride back to Mbuji Mayi I wonder what will happen in this area. Will the current calm hold or will the area plunge back into chaos? It does not look promising: 16 out of 26 provinces in DR Congo are currently in conflict and the pattern repeats itself over and over. Some people might ask why we even try to help if the conflict will just continue, but I have never questioned this. We have to help our fellow humans. No one deserves to be subjected to what these people have, and it’s a moral – and for us at CARE a humanitarian - imperative for anyone with even the slightest consideration for humanity.
And then it happens: our car breaks down. After all the stories we’ve heard along the way it’s somewhat comical to be in distress over our car breaking down. But despite the area being calm, none of us feels safe out on the open road after nightfall. In the middle of our futile stomping, a colleague drives by and offers us a lift. We decide to leave the car rather than to wait for help to come from Mbuji Mayi. We motor off towards the sinking sun and breathe a sigh of relief as the suburbs of the city appear.
On the flight back to our office in Goma I stare out the window, trying to make out villages or towns we may have visited. Everything looks so tidy and peaceful from the air, green and brown and no sign of dust or mosquitoes or armed forces or mad drivers. One part of me wants to stay up in the air forever, it would be easier. But even though our job is not always glamorous, I am proud to be a part of the impact CARE is having in the DRC.