The bloody conflict between armed groups spilled into the tiny village of Mbulungu in the southern Congolese province of Kasai-Central in March 2017. Horrific violence forced 95 per cent of the population to run up to 85 kilometres into the deep forest and hide for months, for fear of being killed. Homes, schools and health centres were burned and pillaged.
Sangamai Teka, 41, and her nine children had no choice but to flee deep into the forest. Her husband ran in another direction, and Sangamai hasn’t seen him since.
Starved to death
While in hiding in the forest, Sangamai tried to adequately feed her children with whatever food she could find. Her efforts were not enough: Two of her children became severely malnourished. In the end, they starved to death.
Most of her other children became very sick. She had to bury her two deceased children right there in the bush and swallow her enormous pain, so she could care for the children she had left.
Sangamai’s story, unfortunately, is not uncommon for the people that survived the conflict in Mbulungu.
Twenty-six-year-old Elamegi Kankolongo is holding her one-week-old daughter, Simba, as her 18-month-old twins cling to her. Her new-born is visibly underweight, and her twins are showing classic signs of malnourishment. She, too, lost a child during the conflict in Mbulungu.
"The child — they [militants] killed him, and then I ran into the bush," she repeats tentatively. Elamegi was two months pregnant when the fighting broke out. She spent six months in the bush by herself — each day a struggle to survive — using the plants and seeds she found to feed herself along the way. Alone, in that forest, she gave birth to her twin boy and girl, Mbuyi and Kanku. For the next few months, she foraged for food to feed her newborns.
In June 2017, militants were finally driven out of the village. Sangamai recalls the moment she knew it was safe enough to return home.
"We came out because they [peacekeepers] came to look for us in the bush. They told us: Come out! Come out! Come out!"
She gathered her children and journeyed through the forest back to Mbulungu to continue her life right where she had left off. But she found her sleepy village unrecognisable — looking like an uninhabited war zone. Everything she knew had been totally destroyed or pillaged.
800,000 children suffer from malnutrition
The precarious food security situation has led, inevitably, to malnutrition. According to UNICEF, nearly 800,000 children under the age of five in the Kasai region are acutely malnourished —400,000 of whom suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
Most of the residents of Mbulungu are agriculturalists who grow food to sell in local markets or to sustain themselves. Sangamai Teka used to farm a plot of land and used the produce grown to feed her children.
"We went to the field every day, " she says, recalling the time before the war. "We farmed cassava and corn. We would come from the field with that kind of food and use it to feed our children."
As many as 90 per cent of the region’s population can no longer access their own fields and many have no access to seeds or tools. Some, out of sheer desperation, have taken to consuming the few seeds they are able to access because they are at the point of starvation. Before the conflict, only six per cent of the population in Mbulungu lived on one meal or less a day. After the conflict, that figure jumped to 50 per cent.
"I breastfeed my children because I have no way to provide [solid] food for them," laments Elamegi as her she looks at her one-and-a-half-year-old twins. "The little children haven’t even grown."
- Donors need to prioritise the plight of people who have returned to their homes as neglecting this segment of people in need could put them at risk of re-displacement and/or intercommunal disputes over meagre resources.
- International donors, particularly those who pledged to assist in funding the humanitarian response in DR Congo, must step up their efforts to ensure that the Response Plan is funded to at least 60 per cent by the end of 2018. 13.1 million lives depend on it.
- Beef up funding and capacity in sectors such as nutrition and shelter to ensure that people in need in Kasai-Central have a place to live and people and, particularly young children, receive adequate levels of nutrition. Otherwise, there is a risk of further illness and death.
- Longer-term funding for programming serving returnees so that people returning to their homes can do so sustainably.
Lack of funding threatens lives
Funding for humanitarian needs is thin across the country, let alone the Greater Kasai Region. The total Humanitarian Response Plan for DR Congo is only 27 per cent funded nine months into the year, with shelter being the lowest funded sector in the entire response.
"We are happy to serve communities like Mbulungu, but we cannot do it alone," says our Country Director in DR Congo, Ulrika Blom. "It is an utter shame that there isn’t enough funding to reinforce capacity to meet needs. If this doesn’t change, and fast, people will die."
The lack of adequate resources is also a concern raised by the people in the region. Many mention that there is so little assistance that they fear that it could cause fighting between people in need competing to receive help. In addition, whatever funding is received has to be parsed out among the most urgent needs. Unfortunately, many donors do not see returnees as the most vulnerable or most in need of urgent assistance.
"It must be recognised that we do more harm than good when we are not able to properly cover the needs in vulnerable communities," continues Ulrika Blom. "Humanitarians are left to choose between certain people in need and leave others behind. Needs will only double, if not triple, if we continue on this path."
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) provided USD 110 for hardware not available in local markets such as doors, windows and locks, and USD 140 for materials found in local markets. In addition, we provided USD 100 to each family targeted to cover their basic needs outside of food.
NRC’s community-based approach to programming in the localities of Mbulungu and Bakuakashila is to include the communities it serves in the assessment and prioritisation of their needs. This approach allows communities to take their assistance into their own hands, gives communities the opportunity to help target their most vulnerable and gives people in need the dignity of making their own choices. Conversely, this approach eschews ‘cookie-cutter’ assistance and discourages the wasting of valuable resources.
Braving the run
Sangamai Teka walks quickly to the plot of land she farms with several other women in the village. They plant kidney beans and are paid with pieces of goat meat by the owner of the plot. They use this meat to feed themselves and their families. Sangamai sings with the other women in the fields and they seem, at least for now, happy.
"Without NRC’s assistance, we would have the last of the suffering. We could have had nothing. This joy [NRC] gives us will stay forever."
Up until this point we hadn’t noticed the t-shirt Sangamai was wearing. It’s dingy and faded black, but the lettering is unmistakable. She couldn’t have understood the irony of the text of the shirt she chose to wear that day, because she speaks and reads no English. But we smiled when we read the bold, white letters: ‘Brave the run’. And that’s exactly what she and Elamegi did — they, and the over million people across Kasai-Central, braved the run.