Nomadic herders forced to flee in Northern Congo

February 1, 2011

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Nomadic herders forced to flee in Northern Congo © Natasha Mlakar/MSF

An MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) team in northern Congo carried out more than 500 consultations for a group of 600 nomads over a period of just three weeks in northern Congo. The women, children and elderly nomads had gathered in a makeshift camp to escape being raped or kidnapped in the bush. When they were ordered to leave their camp by the authorities, MSF only had time to conduct a quick emergency food distribution before the group took flight into the forest. MSF is now worried for their safety and health.

“When 600 women and children arrive suddenly and set up camp next to a town in northern Congo, an alert signal flashes in your brain,” says Azaad Alocco, MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) project coordinator in the town of Niangara, north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. “The terrible thing about the area where we are working is that people deserting their villages and fleeing for their lives is not uncommon – Lords Resistance Army (LRA) rebels are known to operate in this area. But this new group that came in early December was clearly different.”

Attacked in the bush

Since May 2009 an MSF team has been based in the town of Niangara in the Haut-Uélé district, supporting the Ministry of Health in the reference hospital and running medical clinics in two nearby villages. This is a heavily forested and relatively remote part of Congo, not far from the borders with South Sudan and the Central African Republic. “Most of the villages around here are empty, houses and fields overgrown, the only sign of life a rare patch of manioc plants where a farmer has ventured out to try to grow some food for his family,” says Azaad. “Virtually everyone has come to Niangara town and they’re too afraid to return home.”

Then, at the start of December, a group of 600 women, children and elderly arrived and started to construct makeshift shelters on the outskirts of town. Nomadic herders known as ‘Mbororos’ who have for years moved through several central African countries, this was a new development for Niangara.

“They told us that they had been driven out of the neighbouring district and were now afraid of being targeted by FARDC (Congolese Army) soldiers here in Niangara,” explains Azaad. “They said that the women, children and elderly had come to Niangara to avoid being raped or kidnapped in the bush. Even for nomads used to a hard life, the conditions in their makeshift camp were bad, with no water, no hygiene facilities and even the few bits of plastic sheeting they had for making shelters were stolen.”

Medical consultations

Over the next three weeks the MSF team conducted 541 consultations for the Mbororos in the hospital and in their camp. “For a group of 600 people, 541 consultations in a three-week period is a very high number and clearly demonstrates that these people need access to medical care,” says Dr Morten Havdal, MSF doctor in Niangara. “We treated many severe malaria cases, intestinal parasitosis, respiratory infections, skin infections and other pathologies.”

On the morning of December 21, locals informed the MSF team that they had heard gunshots in the direction of the Mbororo camp. An adolescent Mbororo boy had been shot in the groin. “We stabilized the patient and drove him directly to the hospital for surgery,” says Dr Havdal. “The surgery went well and luckily the bullet had passed through his pelvis without creating too much damage. Two weeks after the operation he could get up and walk out of the hospital himself.”

Forced to leave the camp

On the afternoon of January 5, the MSF team went to the makeshift camp to prepare for the clinic they were planning to run the following day. “We found the camp almost empty, nearly 600 people suddenly gone,” says Azaad. “Armed forces were ordering the last few Mbororos to leave the camp immediately. It was very sudden and unexpected.”

Earlier that morning numerous people witnessed FARDC soldiers entering the camp, ordering the Mbororos to leave by 14:00 and seizing all their possessions and animals, leaving them only their donkeys for transport.

That evening, an MSF team found a group of a hundred or so women and children by the roadside just north of the river Uélé, without any shelter or food. Night falls quickly in the forests of Haut-Uélé so there was only time to organise a rushed emergency food distribution for them.

MSF’s fears

At present the women and children who were driven from the camp and several hundred Mbororo men are living in the bush around Nambia, where MSF runs a medical clinic when it is safe enough to do so. “We are worried that they are sleeping out in the bush with no shelter, no food, no way of getting medical care, and much more vulnerable to attacks and harassments than when they were in their camp at Niangara” says Azaad. “It seems these people meet a hostile reception from authorities and local civilians wherever they go. They are currently hiding in places where we cannot reach them. We hope that those who need medical attention can get themselves to our mobile clinics at the Nambia health centre.”

In the Haut- and Bas-Uélé Districts in northern Democratic Republic of Congo MSF provides primary and secondary health care in and around the towns of Dingila, Doruma, Dungu, Duru, Faradje and Niangara. At Dingila and Duruma MSF also runs dedicated sleeping sickness programmes. The medical teams conduct more than 10,000 consultations per month in hospitals and health centres and provide hundreds of mental health consultations for people affected by violence. The insecurity in the region means that there is regular displacement of entire communities; the MSF teams therefore conduct emergency distributions of food and survival material when necessary.

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