Democratic Republic of Congo

MSF team travels to Dungu, DRC, three days after attacks on the town

Three days after rebels of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) attacked the town of Dungu on November 1, an MSF team consisting of a doctor, logistician, and the head of emergencies in Ituri and in High Uele, went to assess the impact of these events on the population and the nature and severity of the needs. The team also sought to confirm if the security conditions could allow MSF to return on site soon. All the organisations present in Dungu, including MSF, decided to evacuate the town the previous Saturday during an attack from the LRA rebels. Confusion at the time was so great that both residents and humanitarian workers felt that any guarantee of safety was lost.

The deserted town

Upon the arrival of the Mission Aviation Fellowship's (MAF) single-engine plane on the small, grass-covered landing strip managed by Aviation Sans FrontiÃ?¨res (ASF) in the southern part of the town, the team noted that the area was almost entirely empty. "Some residents come back during the day to their homes to collect some of their belongings. But at night, everyone hides in the forests south of the town for fear of the rebels," explained the local head of ASF. The violent reputation of Ugandan ex-rebels precedes them everywhere. A young man met near the Purveyor building told us his story with a trembling voice: "About 20 of us had come together in our house thinking that the doors were sturdy enough. Then we heard gunshots close by and armed men arrived, beating down the door to get in. "I preferred to open the door. There were three of them, one of them covered with ammunition belts for machine guns, the other carrying a rocket-launcher tube. They did not say a word. Fortunately, the FARDC [Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo] arrived and they ran away." At the first sign of dawn, the group decided to cross the bridge on the Kibali and head south, meeting up with thousands of other panicked town dwellers. The town of Dungu and its immediate surroundings count no less than 50,000 residents during a normal period. The visit to the general regional hospital of Dungu reflected the general attitude of the town's residents. To this day, it remains almost entirely deserted. Only two nurses, one pharmacist, and one doctor remain out of the entire staff. The only nurse present at the time of our visit refuses to be afraid. "It is too late for that," she said with irritation. "It is done now. They are gone... well, we hope so." Currently, she must care for seven patients on her own, all of whom cannot be moved. One of the patients is a young man who was operated on last week for appendicitis; another patient is a woman who just gave birth by caesarian last night. The doctor did the caesarian despite the circumstances. The questions concerning victims of the recent conflicts have yet to be answered. It is now certain that one civilian was killed by gunshot. Military and rebel losses have been reported in unspecified numbers. With regards to the wounded, none have been brought to the civilian part of the hospital, but there are some present in the section reserved for military. In order to evaluate the living conditions of the fleeing population, the team drove to the south to find them. The pickup truck, abandoned during the evacuation, was loaded with an emergency kit before heading out. Isiro, the largest town in the area, is 210 km away, but it takes two full days to reach it in a 4x4 vehicle. Less than 10 km away, at Makolongulu, the team found the first gathering of people near a church and the school of Nadogolo. Several hundred people waited in the shelter of large thatched huts. According to Jean Bosco, the team's guide and an old MSF employee, there are approximately eight to ten similar gatherings of displaced people in the area. The fear of being kidnapped This visit was the first since recent events, and the majority of people the team meets still live under the shock of the last few days. "No one protected us," said a woman working by the fire. "Those of MONUC [United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo] did not support us. We wonder what they are doing in their camp. We are thankful that the 'autodefenses' [groups formed locally and barely equipped] were brave..." Victims of the LRA fear the kidnapping of children and adolescents the most. Holding her child in her arms, a young woman tells a group of village residents the luck she had in escaping her kidnappers after two days. "We were about 10 young people, kidnapped in different neighborhoods and, at the moment where we were to group together, we noticed that we were suddenly all alone. Several of the other victims and I took our chances and came directly here, where I found my son and my family." The woman's child has a fever, so she shows him to Narcisse Wega Kewkam, the doctor of the team. Upon arrival, he promptly started a little medical consultation area. Several rapid malaria tests were conducted, half of which were positive. "It is still the rainy season, nights are cold, and people have nothing to protect themselves with. They not only risk malaria but also respiratory infections. These people cannot stay long without external assistance," Narcisse explained. Understanding the nature of needs better By three in the afternoon, it is already time to fly back to Bunia. Soon, the team is flying over the roof of the Purveyor., scanning the runway below extending in the south, looking for groups of displaced people. A lost cause. The people must stay far away from the runway and seek cover, just in case. "We now have a better understanding of the needs of this displaced population that nonetheless remain difficult to quantify," explained Fred Meylan, Head of Emergencies. "It is clear that these needs will increase if the situation lasts. We now have enough information to make a decision about the future of our intervention. Evidently, security remains a crucial factor that we will have to take into account before we return." Narcisse, the doctor of the team, left Bunia feeling very worried: "It was impossible for me to do more consultations. The quicker we come back, the better."