Terrible roads, the threat of violence and insufficient resources are hampering efforts to assist up to 400,000 people displaced by violence in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), say humanitarian organizations.
On the ground, relief agencies and NGOs face tough terrain and heavy seasonal rains as well as non-existent infrastructure as they try to help those driven from their homes in DRC’s Katanga Province.
Responders are struggling to raise funds and awareness for a crisis overshadowed by the UN-led drive to pacify DRC’s tortured North and South Kivu regions, and more recently by the turmoil and bloodshed sweeping through the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
“Katanga is not sexy compared to the Kivus,” said Thomas Mollet, head of mission in the province for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). “Now attention is growing a little, but at the international level it is still an unknown crisis.”
Secessionist groups began clashing with the national army and killing or driving out local chiefs in central Katanga about two years ago. The violence has accelerated since October 2013, when the rebels began systematically burning villages in an already impoverished region of some 20,000sqkm known as “The Triangle of Death”.
The difficulties for the few humanitarian relief groups begin at the planning stage. While there are an estimated 400,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), not all require the same level or type of assistance.
Some have been able to return home. Others have rebuilt their lives elsewhere. Many have squeezed into neighbouring villages, putting pressure on local services. The most vulnerable are living in the bush, either with the rebels or in hiding from them. The numbers themselves may have been inflated by officials desperate to secure a slice of whatever help is available.
UN agencies are among the most visible in efforts to help the displaced and their host communities. The World Food Programme (WFP), for instance, is distributing rations to many thousands in the area. But it faces serious problems.
Amadou Samake, head of WFP operations in Katanga, said a lack of resources had prevented relief organizations from carrying out a comprehensive survey of needs in the affected areas - a prerequisite for targeted aid.
“It is limiting our ability to reach those that are vulnerable,” Samake told IRIN. “They [the IDPs] are there on the ground, but we can’t go there even to do a survey because there is not enough money.”
Even when partial surveys are completed, many weeks can pass before help arrives, by which time the victims may have been displaced again. Sometimes it never comes at all, said Georges Kadinga of Katangan NGO Action Against Poverty.
“Only WFP is really active here. The non-food items that the people also need to survive, they never arrive,” he said.
Delays are hardly surprising. While sizeable IDP populations near the town of Pweto are accessible via roads built partly for mining companies, trucks bound for Mitwaba and Manono - the other points of the ill-fated “triangle” - must navigate the notorious R617.
In mid-January, rain turned a section of the narrow dirt road into a giant mudtrap, stranding dozens of vehicles - including several trucks laden with WFP supplies - for over a week. An IRIN reporter watched truck crews laying huge rocks and tree trunks along the worst section in a doomed attempt to repair it. Glum travellers said it was nothing unusual.
Beyond Mitwaba, the road crosses a series of high ridges, their sides littered with the wrecks of vehicles which slipped off the narrow rocky ledge. Trucks creep along at walking pace, adding days to the journey.
The few tracks and bridges within the “triangle” are no better.
“It’s hard to reach certain areas because many of the bridges are too weak to be used by trucks. Some had to be shored up before being used, while others are completely impassable and have to be bypassed, which involves long detours," said Adrien Mazamba Kambaia, a logistics specialist with the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has distributed goods including tarpaulins, blankets and hoes to some communities.
With the violence raging on, security is another obvious constraint.
For example, on 12 February the UN reported that a planned distribution of food near Manono had been postponed after a rebel commander demanded that it take place in the village where his fighters were based.
Martin Kobler, head of the UN mission in DRC, recently pledged to add to the 450 peacekeepers stationed in Katanga. Extra troops would enable the mission, known as MONUSCO, to escort humanitarian relief convoys, he told IRIN.
However, he provided no details of the deployment and suggested its impact would be limited, in part because of the terrain.
“The problem is inaccessibility,” Kobler said. To reach many areas, “you can walk, but you can’t drive.”
MSF, which runs a hospital and mobile clinics inside the “triangle”, said that since the surrender of a senior commander in November, the remaining rebels had splintered into small groups, obliging MSF to negotiate with each one separately - as well as the national army - in order to ensure the safety of its staff.
“It is extremely time-consuming and we are not free to go where we want to,” Mollet said.
Even discounting the operational difficulties, the assistance available appears insufficient. Few NGOs are active in the area, and the efforts of the government are limited.
WFP has scaled back some of its other activities in Katanga in order to focus its resources on those displaced since October. The organization plans to distribute foodstuffs such as maize flour and cooking oil three times over the coming three to four months.
Samake said he hoped that effort would buy time for UN agencies and NGOs to thrash out a common plan to help the displaced return to their villages and get back on their feet - assuming the security situation improves.
Local government officials welcome the food distributions. But they point out that other things are needed. Many victims abandoned all their possessions when rebels stormed into their villages, setting fire to the straw-roofed houses. As a result, there is a shortage of basics like cooking utensils and clothes. Host communities lack drinking water and latrines, and tents would ease the overcrowding of both homes and schools.
“The problems are building up,” said Mbowa Kalenga Wakumbo, an administrator in Mitwaba.
Those able to return to their villages need seed to replant their fields, materials to rebuild their homes and cash-for-work programmes to kick-start the local economy, said Francois Kazembe, an official in Manono. Some of the claims made by the rebels - that the area is massively underdeveloped and needs more schools and health services - were legitimate, he added.
MSF’s Mollet said there was an urgent need for more international medical NGOs to support local health authorities in the region and to provide free health care.
“In this kind of crisis, the cost-recovery system kills. The IDPs have to pay. But with what?” he said.