Tuesday, 14 April 2015

DRC Part III: Mugunga

Completely incredible if overwhelming day yesterday. 

Had a lovely time on Sunday with Mimy and her mum, who was celebrating her 65th birthday. I got invited to the party and had a lovely meal, met the family.

Mimy and Mum

Tilapia, sombe, avocado, rice and sauce.

Thanks to Mimy and her husband, I got a special pass to go and visit the refugee camps just outside Goma. There are technically two: Mugunga 3, the largest of the camps, and Mugunga 1, which has absorbed Mugunga 2.

LB had taken the ferry to Bukavu to catch up with friends, so Ghassy came with me to help interpret. The DRC is francophone, and I speak no French. Though most of the people in the camps speak Kinyawrwanda, so I was able to say a few hellos, which made them smile.

This was my very first time in a refugee camp, and I was very privileged. I was able to meet with the camp coordinator, an incredible lady called Agnes who works for UNHCR, the organisation who control Camp 3. I was able to ask as many questions as I could think of - which was a lot. And then I was taken on a tour of the camps.

We travelled there in style in an IEDA/UNHCR vehicle, which had better suspension than the van we took to Nyamitaba. However, I think I felt safer in the van with LB. The problem with an NGO vehicle is that everybody knows exactly who you are. If trouble broke out, you'd probably be the first to be attacked. Though a vehicle with a logo on does guarantee you passage through any road block unmolested, which is extremely useful. They also have a whacking big antenna on the front, so help is a phone call away no matter where you are.

It was a lovely day for a drive, and Lake Kivu looked blue and beautiful as we left Goma.

Lake Kivu

Hospital, Mugunga 3
Each family share a tent.
There are around 6,000 refugees in camp 3
For more information, see Great Lakes Refugee Crisis


This elderly grandmother was sharing a tent with her grandchildren, whose parents had left. This is a common problem. Often parents abandon their children in the camps, either to go in search of work or because they simply feel unable to cope. If the children have no other family in the camp, they are on their own.

Something that struck me was that everybody in the camp was happy to be photographed. Especially the children. Nobody asked for money. I asked Agnes why this was, and she explained that they had received training not to hassle visitors for money, but that if I came on my own they probably would. I was grateful that nobody asked, but it seemed so strange. Outside the camp, and sometimes in Rwanda, you get asked for money in return for photographs, but here everyone just loved the cameras, and I made sure to show them the pictures I had taken. A record of their existence.

This lovely little girl was busy filling up buckets of water by herself when we found her. There is very little water pressure, so although there are six taps, it takes between 25-30 minutes to fill a single jerrycan. The moment we took out our cameras, she was suddenly surrounded.

All except for this little boy, who didn't look at all sure about us.

Conditions in the camp are beyond description. I had assumed that the international aid organisations had it sewn up, but I was dumbstruck by the level of abandonment. There was an empty Handicap International office. An empty Save the Children office. And the UN were holding back - I'll get to that shortly. It was desperate in there. I had assumed that, being a new, small organisation, my client wouldn't have been particularly welcome there - that the larger NGOs would be dealing with everything already. But they were crying out for help. There is nobody there.

Washing Facilities


When outbreaks of cholera occur, up to four people die per week, compared to the average of one per week. There's a cemetery to the back of the camp.

(panoramics - click to enlarge)

Building a new tent.

Exactly as happened with the toilets World Vision built in Nyamitaba, Handicap International built hand-cycle bikes for disabled members of the camp. Then left. Providing no maintenance, parts or training, it would appear. This young man told me how hard it was to keep the bike in working order, and that it often broke.

L-R: Agnes from UNHCR, myself and Charlie

Before leaving, I met with the president of the camp. Each camp elects representatives to form a committee in charge of camp security and problem-solving. In Mugunga 3 the president is a lady named Charlie, in Mugunga 1&2 it is a gentleman named Claude. I presented both with small donations to distribute to the most urgent causes.

Camp security is a big issue. Each night, before it gets dark, all of the aid agencies, including the UN, leave. The refugees are left alone, completely to their own devices, and Claude was explaining that he had witnessed people being killed by rebels when they pass through the area.

Once again we find ourselves asking: What does the UN actually do?

Time for someone to write Emergency Sex Volume II?

After that, it was on to the smaller camp, Mugunga 1&2. Here there are currently round 2,441 families and 5,397 refugees.

We registered in the office, which is this building above. As you can see, the sheeting is in a terrible state. It's falling off the administrative building and the houses. 

Funny story behind that. Mugunga 3 is in a similar state, run by UNHCR. Mugunga 1&2 is run by IOM, the International Organisation for Migration

The tents in Mugunga 3 don't have any sheeting because the government want to close the camp by December. Apparently, refugee camps aren't good for your international reputation - whoda thunk it? They want people to return to their villages. When they tried to send people home by force, they hid in the bushes. So now the government has started a scheme called Go And See. This is where government officials head out into rebel-ravaged areas, declare them safe, and try to convince people to return home voluntarily. Most of those that have left then return to the camp a few weeks later when they discover their home isn't safe after all. 

Back to the matter of the sheeting. Although no one believes the inhabitants of the camp will leave by December, the fact that the government has declared the camp must close means that UNHCR are not handing out any maintenance supplies (the sheeting) because they don't want to annoy the government.

Meanwhile, in camps 1&2 it's the same problem, for a different reason. Apparently IOM's warehouses are empty and they don't have funding for more sheeting. What they had was diverted to another crisis a few months ago.

So, UNHCR have the sheeting but won't distribute it, and IOM will distribute it but don't have the sheeting.

Welcome to international development at its finest.

It's incredible we've survived this long as a species. 

Mugunga 1&2

Laundry Facilities

In a state of extreme anger and disbelief, we headed for home. Agnes had kindly agree to give a tour of the Tulizeni Orphanage Project on the way. This is a house in Goma where orphans from the refugee camps are brought, as well as a few of the young mothers. Many of the girls turn to prostitution in the camps, and around fifteen have places here to raise thair children.

Agnes and Emmanuel

This little boy was abandoned soon after birth, his mother decided she couldn't cope and has left the camp. He weighed only 1kg (2.2lb) when he arrived, but is now healthy and well. It was feeding time when we arrived and the porch was crammed with kids. There is space for fifty children at the centre and it is running at full capacity. They have apparently made bids to donors, including CAFOD, but have received no support. They rely entirely on community donations of food and supplies.

I'm afraid this is where I completely lost control of myself. Whilst the staff were explaining the situation, I knew that I was going to cry but I was trying so hard to hold it together. The problems are so obviouse, and the need is so great. 

Then they showed me into the dormitories and it overwhelmed me. I was expecting the camps to some extent. I'd grown up with Red Nose Day images of refugee camps on the television each year. I knew they weren't going to be pleasant (though I didn't know they were going to be completely abandoned by the international aid community). 

The children, however, were too much for me.

Firstly, it was the smell. It smelled exactly like a hamster cage. The staff of the facility are absolutely incredible, and they do the very best with what they have, but the kids are sleeping four to a bed and there's very little outside help.

But the part that broke me was the kids themselves. They were so completely beside themselves to see me. Huge smiles, giggles, reaching out to shake my hand. All they wanted to do was cuddle - and all I could do was run from the room. I felt so ashamed. They were the ones in the orphanage, and I was the one blubbing against the wall. In front of the UNHCR officer and the staff who face this every single day. It was just too much in one day. Their happiness was painful. As Agnes explained: "They are so happy because it is good here. It is so much worse in the camps."

By the time Ghassy got me back to the hotel, he'd managed to raise a smile from me. And when LB joined us I found myself laughing and asking him to apologise for the stereotypical muzungu who was supposed to be representing him and making a good impression. He was very forgiving. Yet no matter how many people tell you 'it's normal' to react that way, you still wince a little inside. You want to be stronger than that because they are.

After a little time to think and consider all that I've seen, I really do only have one question: 

Where the fuck is the money?

Roads, a working water pump, sanitation... that's child's play for the UN, surely? If not, they certainly shouldn't be allowed to play with guns. And, yes, I know there are other crises all around the world - but do it once, and do it well. Not these World Vision toilets that collapsed, or these taps that take half an hour to fill a bucket. What the hell were you thinking?

I'm left dumbstruck, I really am. But I'm glad I got to see it. I'm supposed to be touring refugee camps in Rwanda later this year for my job. It will be extremely interesting to compare.

Laundry at the Orphanage

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