DR Congo country director Ulrika Blom standing outside the NRC office in Goma.

Photo: Christian Jepsen, Norwegian Refugee Council
DR Congo

Working in one of the world's deadliest crises

For two years, Swedish Ulrika Blom led the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)'s work in one of the world's deadliest crises: The Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"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.

Outgoing CD in DRC, Ulrika Blom is holding her last presentation at HO in Oslo.
Photo:Beate Simarud/NRC
Read caption 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. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

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.

NRC team meeting with residents of Mbulungu village. 

Nearly 17,000 people—or close to 95 per cent of Mbulungu’s population was forced to flee into the forest when fighting broke out between armed groups in March and April of 2017.  Some had to walk up to seven days to find a safe place to hide.  Many lost family members, were assaulted and nearly starved to death while on the move.  All lived in horrific conditions not certain of whether or not life would ever return to normal.

Though calm has returned to Mbulungu and several villages and towns just like it across Kasai-Central, people are not able to continue their lives as normal.  The violent conflict of 2017 left mass destruction in its wake—homes, markets, schools, sanitation facilities and health infrastructure in complete disarray.  In fact, 67 per cent of families living in Mbulungu do not have access to proper latrines and 55 per cent have no access to soap.  These absence of these basic necessities coupled with malnutrition and lack of proper shelter can lead to a host of diseases and death.

For that reason, NRC visited Mbulungu, in early 2017, where they met with the community to understand their primary needs.  NRC used its “community-based approach” by consulting with these communities to better understand their primary needs, to properly target the most vulnerable people and facilitate their ability to choose the assistance they require.

This intervention, however, is only a drop in the ocean of the vast needs of this community.  NRC is currently the only humanitarian actor in the zone and funding is not enough to address other acute needs such as food assistance, household items and education.  The Humanitarian Response Plan is currently only 25 per cent funded eight months into the year.  Humanitarian capacity is critically low.  If donors do not act now for the people of Mbulungu and for the rest of DR Congo, it will be too late.

August 29, 2018, Kasai-Central Province, DR Congo. 
Photo: NRC/Aléxis Huguet
Read caption NRC's team with residents of Mbulungu village in the Kasai region. When the region was ravaged by violence in 2016 an 2017, they had to flee. Now, NRC helps them rebuild their homes. Photo: Aléxis Huguet/NRC

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."

Read also: Braving the run

"After giving birth, I suffered with these children because I couldn't find anything to eat. I didn't have anyone. I was alone," Elamegi recalled.  "When we finally got out of the forest, I had nothing left. My house had been burned down. I didn't get anything back." 

Elamegi is one of the beneficiaries of the shelter reconstruction assistance programme launched by NRC. 

Before the conflict, only six per cent of the people living in the Mbulungu area were living on one meal or less a day.  After the conflict, nearly half of the population who has returned are living one meal or less per day.

The Greater Kasai Region has the highest rate of malnutrition in the country with 770,000 children under the age of five living with acute malnutrition—440,000 of which suffer from severe acute malnutrition.  Unfortunately, food isn’t the only exigent need in this region.

In early 2017, NRC visited Mbulungu where they met with the community to understand their primary needs.  NRC used its “community-based approach” by consulting with these communities to better understand their primary needs, to properly target the most vulnerable people and facilitate their ability to choose the assistance they require.

This intervention, however, is only a drop in the ocean of the vast needs of this community.  NRC is currently the only humanitarian actor in the zone and funding is not enough to address other acute needs such as food assistance, household items and education.  The Humanitarian Response Plan is currently only 25 per cent funded eight months into the year.  Humanitarian capacity is critically low.  If donors do not act now for the people of Mbulungu and for the rest of DR Congo, it will be too late.

August 29, 2018, Kasai-Central Province, DR Congo
Photo: NRC/Aléxis Huguet
Read caption 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. One of her children was killed during the conflict. Photo: Aléxis Huguet/NRC

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.

An NRC vehicle driving on the main road between Kananga, Kasai-Central's capital and Tshikapa, Kasai province. The poor state of roads and the limited availability of transport in the region reinforce the isolation of rural residents. 
28 August 2018, Kasai-Central Province, DR Congo
Photo: NRC/Aléxis Huguet
Read caption An NRC vehicle driving on the main road between Kananga, Kasai-Central's capital and Tshikapa, Kasai province. The poor state of roads and the limited availability of transport in the region reinforce the isolation of rural residents. Photo: Aléxis Huguet/NRC

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."

Bahati is fourteen-years-old and lives in Kasave village in Rutshuru territory, DR Congo.
When we met him, he was attending the five grade at Kihito primary school where NRC distributed notebooks, pens, pencils, and other school supplies to enable vulnerable crisis-affected children to afford better their education in a protected and secure environment. 

In 2017, given the fact that his parents were unable to pay his school fees, Bahati dropped out of school for one year.  During this time, he was feeling bad and bored to stay home alone while his friends and schoolmates were at school. When NRC selected him to participate in the catchup class, Bahati was very happy and motivated to go back to school again. Since he has attended NRC catch up class, Bahati is now very devoted to the French language in order to be able to communicate better with French speakers. Bahati would like to become a teacher so that he can teach others children. During the reaction time at Kihito primary school, he usually plays football and jumps rope with his schoolmates.

With support from the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) NRC distributed notebooks, pens and pencils to over 13 200 students, including Bahati, to ensure that they study in a protected and safe environment. NRC also trained teachers of Psychosocial Support and Classroom Management to ensure quality education for the conflict-affected children, and trained Parent Teacher Committees on school management. In addition, we supported over 4 200 students with catch-up class to help them reintegrate into school where they will study for free this year thanks to cash transfers to the schools that contributed to teacher payment, purchase of school materials and other needs. 

Thanks to this response, NRC built twenty-eight new classrooms in fourteen conflict-affected primary schools in Rutshuru; these classrooms are currently hosting the children from the local community, returnees and displaced children— thus, numbers of students enrolled have doubled and the schooling conditions have improved significantly compared to last year.

November 2018
Photo: NRC/Ephrem Chiruza
Read caption 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. Here's from Rutshuru in the province of North Kivu. Photo: Ephrem Chiruza/NRC

Lacks funding

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."

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.
Ulrika Blom, NRC
View of the ruins of an administrative building in the village of Mbulungu. In early 2017, armed militias took control of the area. They systematically destroyed official buildings and attacked government officials. 

Over 1 million people have returned to their homes in Kasai-Central after a year of violent conflict within the province and across the Greater Kasai Region.  Unfortunately, people who have returned have found their homes and fields pillaged and burned to the ground.  These farming communities have no shelter, no food to eat and no means of sustaining any viable livelihood.

Earlier this year, NRC visited Mbulungu and Bakuakashila, two villages ravaged by the regional conflict in 2017.  NRC used its “community-based approach” by consulting with these communities to better understand their primary needs, to properly target the most vulnerable people and facilitate their ability to choose the assistance they require.

This intervention, however, is only a drop in the ocean of the vast needs of this community.  NRC is currently the only humanitarian actor in the zone and funding is not enough to address other acute needs such as food assistance, household items and education.  The Humanitarian Response Plan is currently only 25 per cent funded eight months into the year.  Humanitarian capacity is critically low.  If donors do not act now for the people of Mbulungu and for the rest of DR Congo, it will be too late.

August 29, 2018 - Kasai-Central Province, DR Congo 
Photo: NRC/Aléxis Huguet
Read caption View of the ruins of an administrative building in the village of Mbulungu, Central Kasai region. In early 2017, armed militias took control of the area. They systematically destroyed official buildings and attacked government officials. Photo: Aléxis Huguet/NRC

"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.

Read also: The long way home

Marie Bukumba, 70, stifles a laugh while standing in her new, NRC-funded home in Mbulungu village, Kasai-Central.

"The good thing is I left suffering.  If suffering ends, I will say thank you God to the people who helped me," she exclaimed.  "That they will arrange for me to sleep in peace, so that sickness will leave me alone."

Over 1 million people have returned to their homes in Kasai-Central after a year of violent conflict within the province and across the Greater Kasai Region.  Unfortunately, people who have returned have found their homes and fields pillaged and burned to the ground.  These farming communities have no shelter, no food to eat and no means of sustaining any viable livelihood.

Earlier this year, NRC visited Mbulungu and Bakuakashila, two villages ravaged by the regional conflict in 2017.  NRC used its “community-based approach” by consulting with these communities to better understand their primary needs, to properly target the most vulnerable people and facilitate their ability to choose the assistance they require.

This intervention, however, is only a drop in the ocean of the vast needs of this community.  NRC is currently the only humanitarian actor in the zone and funding is not enough to address other acute needs such as food assistance, household items and education.  The Humanitarian Response Plan is currently only 25 per cent funded eight months into the year.  Humanitarian capacity is critically low.  If donors do not act now for the people of Mbulungu and for the rest of DR Congo, it will be too late.

August 29, 2018- Kasai-Central Province, DR Congo
Photo : NRC/Aléxis Huguet
Read caption "I have nothing. I left with one piece of cloth — it is the cloth I'm wearing now," says Marie Bakumba, a 70-year-old woman from Mbulungu village in the southern Congolese province of Kasai. She is happy to be back in her village and to have received assistance from NRC so that she could afford rebuilding her home. Photo: Aléxis Huguet/NRC

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."

Jan Egeland and Ulrika Blom, Country Director NRC DRC in Beni, North Kivu. 

Only two months into 2018, and North Kivu province is returning as a hotspot in the crisis. A resurgence of inter-communal fighting and violent clashes between armed groups caused a dangerous spike in displacement in 2017. Some 1.2 million people are now displaced in the province – the highest number in any area in the country.

“Despite the resurgence of violence in North Kivu, critical funding is being pulled out of the province and into other areas, deemed by the UN as higher priority. Aid agencies are forced to juggle dwindling resources. It’s a life-threatening lottery on who wins and who loses – with lethal stakes. Areas that lose face sickness, disease and ultimately death,” said Egeland.

“The priority for DRC is a massive scale-up of funding and of aid workers in conflict areas, including North Kivu. Otherwise, the humanitarian community won’t be able to cope and will face certain calamity. We are already overwhelmed by what feels like a continent of crises, and we as humanitarians are so few and with no means to help.
Read caption NRC' Secretary General Jan Egeland and Ulrika Blom in Beni, North Kivu in 2018. Photo: Alex McBride/NRC