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Aid Workers Struggle To Provide Services In Congo

Nov 25, 2012
Originally published on November 25, 2012 5:47 pm

The rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo has set off another humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of displaced villagers who fled the fighting are on the march with their belongings, and someone has to take care of them.

Into this sea of need wades Tariq Riebl, a tall 34-year-old German with a shaved head. He is the humanitarian program coordinator for the international charity Oxfam in the rebel-held city of Goma.

"Basically, what we're going to do, we have two teams," Riebl says.

His WSH team will take care of water, sanitation and hygiene, and the community services team is going to look at security, he says.

A Coordinated Response

The current emergency is the 5,000 to 10,000 Congolese refugees who have encamped on the grounds of Don Bosco Catholic School. People are being turned away from the school gymnasium, which is filled to capacity.

They are part of the roughly 100,000 to 150,000 internally displaced people — or IDPs — who have been set adrift during the current outbreak of hostilities in eastern Congo.

In these sorts of crises, agencies work together. The Red Cross is already here with water; the World Food Programme is planning high-calorie meals; Catholic Relief Services is looking at shelters; and Oxfam is here doing what it does really well — toilets.

This site needs Oxfam's expertise desperately. A large village is using latrines set up for a medium-sized school, with appalling results. It's basically one bathroom for thousands of people.

Fighting Cynicism, Too

Historically, displacement is the greatest killer during conflict — much more than bombs and bullets. In the Congo war from 1998 to 2004, more than a million people died from the conditions caused by forced travel and homelessness, such as preventable disease and malnutrition.

Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Somalia and Afghanistan, are enormous humanitarian challenges because conditions never seem to get better. The shooting starts again, people run for their lives, they fall ill and the whole cycle starts over.

Indeed, Oxfam workers have previously seen most of the people seeking refuge in this school. The next morning at breakfast, Riebl is in a contemplative mood.

"I was actually hesitant to come to North Kivu [province], I've done a lot of the big crisis zones and I'd always avoided Eastern Congo in general," he says. "I've had so many friends who've worked here and I could hear the cynicism and getting jaded progressively over time."

Moodiness is a luxury in this job. For the Oxfam team in Goma, the immediate concern is how to find the materials to build emergency latrines without any money. The banks are closed and supply lines disrupted by the armed standoff.

They will find a way.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

Political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo has set off a humanitarian crisis. The M23 rebel group has taken over a major city in the eastern part of the country. And the rebels say they'll continue fighting until the current government is overthrown. Tens of thousands of displaced villagers have fled the fighting and they're on the march with their belongings, like this line of refugees spotted on the road between Sake and Goma.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING CHILD)

MARTIN: They need the basics: food, water, shelter.

NPR's John Burnett profiles a team at one beleaguered humanitarian agency that takes on the toughest cases.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: This is the sound of displacement. Firewood is hauled, cook fires are lit, food is scavenged, babies are suckled; everywhere restless children look for diversion.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CHILD)

BURNETT: Into this sea of need wades a tall, 34-year-old German with a shaved head named Tariq Reibl. In the rebel-held city of Goma, he is humanitarian program coordinator for the international charity, Oxfam.

TARIQ REIBL: Basically, what we're going to do is that we have two teams - WSH team that's going to look at everything that's water, sanitation, and then we have a community services and they're going to look at security of the IDPs.

BURNETT: This is the emergency du jour: five to 10,000 Congolese refugees have encamped on the grounds of Don Bosco Catholic School in Goma. They're part of the 100 to 150,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, that have been set adrift during the current outbreak of hostilities in Eastern Congo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: A Congolese Boy Scout has to turn people away from the school gymnasium, which is already filled to capacity.

In these sorts of crises, agencies work together. The Red Cross is already here with clean water. The World Food Program is planning high-calorie meals. Catholic Relief Services is looking at shelters.

What Oxfam does really, really well is toilets. This site needs its expertise desperately. A large village is using latrines set up for a medium-sized school, with appalling results.

And so this is one bathroom for thousands of people.

CLOVIS MWUAMBUTSA: Yes, for thousands of people. And so we have the other side but it's in the same condition. So it's quite a big site. Yeah?

BURNETT: Clovis Mwuambutsa is the coordinator for Oxfam in North Kivu Province.

What's important to remember is that historically, this is the greatest killer, much more than bombs and bullets. In the Congo War, from 1998 to 2004, more than a million people died from the conditions of displacement, such as preventable disease and malnutrition.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Somalia and Afghanistan, are enormous humanitarian challenges because conditions never seem to get better. The shooting starts again, people run for their lives, they fall ill, and the whole cycle starts over.

Indeed, Oxfam workers have seen most of the people seeking refuge in this school before.

The next morning at breakfast, Oxfam's Tariq Reibl is in a contemplative mood.

REIBL: Yes, actually I was quite hesitant to come to North Kivu. I've done lots of the big crises zones in the world. And I'd always kind of avoided Eastern Congo in general. I have so many friends that have worked here and I kind of could hear the cynicism or getting jaded progressively over time.

BURNETT: Moodiness is a luxury in this job. For the Oxfam Goma team, the immediate concern is how to find the materials to build emergency latrines with no money because the banks are closed, and supply lines disrupted by the armed standoff. They will find a way.

John Burnett, NPR News, Kigali, Rwanda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.