Situation critical: Food deliveries halted in DRC emergency camps
More than 53,000 people live in this camp for people displaced by the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Paul Bettings/World Vision Canada)
Published Friday, January 17, 2014 2:19PM PST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 22, 2014 7:23AM PST
Fifteen-year-old Neema goes to sleep hungry most nights. Fleeing bomb strikes in her village, she arrived at the Mugunga camp for internally displaced people in the eastern DRC two months ago with her one-month-old sister. With no money, possessions or promise, her chances of leaving anytime soon are virtually non-existent.
Neema’s not alone. More than 53,000 people are crammed into this camp for internally displaced people, most coming here in the past two years after civil war and M23 rebel fighting destroyed their villages, their livelihoods and, most likely, their chances at a future.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is on the brink of another full-blown humanitarian crisis. A massive funding shortfall will leave millions of the country’s most vulnerable people without emergency food aid, concerned agencies say.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) had to reduce -- and in some cases halt -- food delivery to refugee camps in December, citing a "pipeline issue": a $75-million donor funding shortfall.
It's a bleak situation and there's no short-term solution in sight. One in 10 children in the DRC already suffers from acute malnutrition and 6.3 million people rely on food assistance each month.
At the Mugunga IDP camp, the already meagre food rations were cut in half months ago. A 30-day family ration of cereals, beans, vegetable oil, rice and corn will only last nine to 11 days.
"There has been one month without food in the camps and everyone is very hungry," the elected president of the camp, Amaharo, tells me during my visit.
Suffering through years of war and conflict, most of the 11,000 families have no possessions other than what they carried in. The homes they left behind have been looted and destroyed, and the fields they farmed to earn a living are no longer viable because they’ve been away from them for so long.
"There is nothing for them now," Inos Mugabe, World Vision's camp commodity officer, says. World Vision is responsible for food distribution at four area camps, with more than 138,000 people receiving emergency food assistance.
There is almost no opportunity for families to be financially productive here. A few people graze goats, but the landscape is harsh and desperate: the overcrowded camp is built on top of sharp volcanic rock.
It could be another six months before regular food deliveries to the camp resume.
"To tell people there is no food is hard. There are so many children here. Sometimes I cry to let it out," Mugabe says.
The food shortages have also led to thefts and violence, and sexual assault. Women, forced to go into the woods by themselves to collect wood to sell in exchange for food, are frequently raped.
"We get abused in the forest," a mother named Annastase tells me, saying husbands who try to protect their wives are beaten. "We lack everything. We don't know how to feed our children."
Neema, considered an unaccompanied minor, is eligible to receive food rations but there isn’t enough food at the camp to add anyone new to the list.
She lives in a tattered tent held together with rags, and her only possessions are the clothes on her back, and a small plate. Usually the only food she receives comes from her female neighbours, who are hungry too, but take pity on her. The scraps will feed her baby sister first, and she will eat if there is anything left.
"I still don't know how to get food," she tells me. The teen will sometimes walk to the main road with her sister and offer to carry people's bags in exchange for food, or a small amount of money.
"I just want to go home," she says.
Neema is a young victim among thousands who have fallen through the cracks in the war-torn country, one of the poorest in the world, World Vision Canada President Dave Toycen tells me after we speak to the teen.
"You can't be a feeling human being and not see this as heartbreaking. We are underfunded around the world. We all know the problem. We don't know the answer," he says.
The head of the WFP says a funding shortfall can partially be blamed on high-profile emergencies like the Syrian conflict and the Philippines superstorm that are diverting the attention of donors.
Because the country has been plagued by conflict for more than two decades, the WFP's DRC country director says there is also donor fatigue.
“When it’s somewhere like the DRC, it’s ongoing conflict. It’s hard: donors don’t see an end to it. The situation gives people concern about whether giving money to this place will really help the people,” he says.
“It’s important to remember that if it’s a child in the Philippines who’s lost their parents in the natural disaster or a child who’s been separated from their family in the DRC, there’s no difference. They both need help.”
World Vision just launched an initiative that specifically targets people in the world’s most vulnerable and dangerous countries, including the DRC, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
Like in the IDP camps, the focus is on providing the most vital human needs: clean water, nutritious food, basic shelters and sanitation facilities.
The goal here is simple, but ambitious: save lives now and then help the community rebuild. That means getting people back to their homes, getting kids back to school and families back to work.
“Just because progress is slow in the DRC doesn’t mean we’re going to give up,” Toycen says.