"I am a little tired now," she says. Ulrika Blom has stopped by NRC’s Head Office in Oslo to say hello and Merry Christmas to colleagues, before she gets on the bus home to Gothenburg. She looks forward to a traditional Christmas celebration with her family and a skiing vacation in Dalarna, in the north-west of Sweden.
The contrast to her usual workplace couldn’t be bigger. For two years, Ulrika Blom has been NRC's Country Director in the Democratic Republic the Congo (DR Congo), a country where violence and conflict for decades have displaced civilians from their homes.
Such work takes a toll on one, and now it's time for a long vacation. But first, Ulrika will give her colleagues a status report on the humanitarian situation in Africa's second largest country and number one on NRC's list of the world's most neglected crises in 2017.
Power struggle before the general elections
"There has been an increase in the number of new internally displaced every year in recent years. The reason is that there is active, on-going conflict. Now we are in a pre-election period and so, naturally, there is a struggle for power," she explains.
The upcoming elections, scheduled to take place on 23 December, has already been postponed several times over the past two years. But two years isn’t such a long time in a country that has been drenched in one of the world's most difficult and grave humanitarian crises for over 20 years. And since the conflicts in the country are both increasing in number and severity, and a record number of people are fleeing, there are few indications that the crisis will be over soon.
Not one, but many conflicts
"It's not as if there's just one conflict in DR Congo. There are many different conflicts between different communities, fighting for access to resources, land and so on," says Ulrika.
It was a coincidence that got her into humanitarian work. She has a background as a teacher, first at high school, then as a researcher at a university, with a PhD in cultural geography.
"I have always been interested in international work, and when peace came to Angola in 2002, I had the opportunity to work with phasing out NRC’s programmes there."
Since then, it has only continued, until she started working in DR Congo in the fall of 2016.
That Ulrika is a former teacher becomes evident as she stands in front of a packed meeting room to talk to NRC staff about the work the organisation is doing in DR Congo. We can hear the slight rattles of cutlery: Most spend their lunch time listening to this presentation. But otherwise it's quiet - Ulrika has their full attention.
"Congo is a very resource-rich country that has been in conflict for many years, and when looking at the causes of conflict, the resources play a role – how they are distributed, who has access to them and who gets rich because of them."
It is precisely this uneven distribution that causes large parts of the Congolese population to live in extreme poverty.
"If a population is so malnourished that they hardly manage to survive, they take measures that may lead to instability, conflict and war."
Almost the entire population of Norway on the run
As many as 4.5 million Congolese are displaced within their country. That's close to the number of the entire population of Norway. In addition, around 800,000 have fled to neighbouring countries such as Angola, Zambia and Tanzania.
According to Ulrika, the internally displaced Congolese primarily need protection.
"Protection is about many things, but above all, that you no longer manage on your own. When fleeing, one has no protection: One does not have shelter, food or school. The needs are enormous."
Therefore, NRC works to be present in all the areas of the country where there is a high number of displaced people. We provide emergency relief, including cash aid, and analyse the population’s need for protection.
Education in emergencies
One of the most important things we do in DR Congo, is to give children and youth the opportunity to go to school, even though they are living in a crisis.
"Congo is the country where NRC helps the most people, and the country where we are the largest provider of education in emergencies," she says.
"I think that education is the future. If we don't invest in the children, then this crisis will continue for generation after generation. Poverty can only be overcome if people receive education. It's not about people moving to the city and working in a bank: With education, for example, people can also improve their farming technique. If one can read, it's easier to know and secure ones’ civil rights. If people have education, it becomes more difficult to expose them to abuse, such as taking away their land."
But providing education to DR Congo’s crisis-affected populations is no easy job.
"What I find most frustrating is that we don't get more funding towards our work. It's unfair that other crises get much more money for relief efforts, even though the needs are not as great."
Congo is one of the world's most under-funded crises, and the result is that people only get poorer and poorer. It may sound strange, but this is what drives Ulrika Blom – to work tirelessly for the world's most neglected crisis to not be forgotten.
Sometimes, she has succeeded.
"With our education in emergencies programme, we have achieved something that our donors feel is relevant. Thus, we can increase our capacity to respond to the needs of the crisis," she smiles, and continues:
"That we’ve focused on education as an important part of our response, and that we are the largest provider of this, has been the best thing about this job."
"We cried with them"
Two years at work in one of the world's deadliest crises have left their traces. In 2016, a new conflict broke out in the Kasaï province in the south-western part of the country, and the civilian population there were subjected to horrific violence and abuse. Thanks to new funding, NRC was able to react quickly, and were the first to reach the civilian population with help. The people she met there, will never escape Ulrika’s mind.
"We met people who were still traumatised by what they had experienced. We helped them with food and emergency items. They had survived in the bush, but their children had died. They cried. We cried with them. It made a very strong impression. Fortunately, we were able to help them cover their basic needs."
Amid all the cruelty, Ulrika has found there’s something beautiful with such encounters: To be able to listen to what they have experienced and just be there with them.
"We are humans, and they are humans. That’s the primary takeaway for me."
Therefore, it’s so incredibly important to continue to raise awareness of the crisis in DR Congo.
One of the world's deadliest conflicts since World War II
"It's rather scary to see that how much the world is willing to invest in assistance to various humanitarian crises have to do with political factors, and not the needs of people in these crises. DR Congo is a country far away, it’s very large, incomprehensible and complex, and the result of this is that we have lost interest in the conflict, although we are well aware that this is one of the world's deadliest conflicts since World War II. It’s alarming that the international community fails to provide the various crises the same amount of attention.”
As a humanitarian worker, Ulrika believes the most important thing is that people are alive when the conflict ends.
"Our mission is to ensure that the civilian population don’t suffer an unreasonable amount: To help them survive the conflict. Ending the conflict is someone else’s responsibility, but the international community must get more engaged in DR Congo, so that this can happen. We who take on the humanitarian challenges must get enough resources, so that we can help more people."
A lot of goodness there
The media also plays an important role in getting the spotlight on DR Congo.
"It is an extremely complex conflict that requires a certain in-depth analysis, and not easy takes. I’m very glad that one of this year's Nobel Peace Prize winners is from DR Congo, and I hope that will lead to a deeper analysis of causes and how we can help the people there."
"What thoughts do you have about DR Congo's future?"
"I think it is a very resource-rich country that should be able to support its population. There are opportunities there. What perhaps is quite unique with DR Congo, it is that many people remain hopeful and motivated, although it is an extremely violent and deadly society. But there are also opportunities there. I think the youth see that there is a lot of goodness there too – it's not like everything is bad."
"And your own future, what are your thoughts there?"
"I will probably continue to work as a humanitarian. It's tremendously rewarding and challenging. Moreover, it is very interesting, professionally speaking, although at times it’s also exhausting."