Vehicles marked with the Médecins Sans Frontières logo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The nongovernmental organization received a letter containing a direct threat to its staff working in Pinga. Photo by: Roberto De Vido / CC BY-NC-ND

The Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be one of the most dangerous places in the world to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.

Several ongoing conflicts inside the country have led to an emergency situation that many aid groups feel doesn’t get enough attention in the mainstream media: about 2.4 million internally displaced people and almost half a million refugees in neighboring countries.

Constant village massacres, rape, kidnappings, looting of warehouses and drafting of child soldiers into armed militias do not normally deter a handful of international relief organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières, who has been providing medical care to victims of the conflict in the eastern Pingu area since before 2010.

This time, however, it is the aid workers themselves who have been threatened, and MSF last week decided to suspend its operations there until it can guarantee the safety of its staff members.

Staff intimidated

Two weeks ago, MSF received a letter containing a direct threat to the organization’s staff working in Pinga, where the fighting has forced tens of thousands of civilians — and sometimes MSF’s local staff as well — to flee to the bush, where no medical care is available and deaths go unreported.

“At present we are trying to find out more about the individuals who wrote the letter and what their motivation is. This letter is the latest in a series of incidents where staff have been intimidated,” Annemarie Loof, MSF operations manager in the country, told Devex. “We strongly condemn the intimidation of humanitarian workers and cannot accept threats directed at our staff.”

Loof explained the challenges of trying to deliver aid in a town whose control has changed hands eight times since early 2012.

“Civilians [are] routinely exposed to shocking levels of violence. Houses have been burned and looted, armed men have entered the hospital and interrogated patients, residents in Pinga and the surrounding villages are regularly forced from their homes and displaced into the forest where they are cut off from medical care,” she said.

Not even medical facilities are respected by militias, which also injects fear among MSF’s local staff that very few remain in town.

Civilians and staff who decide to stay are exposed to “harsh treatment, illegal taxation, forced recruitment or worse,” Loof adds. Some try to return — like a woman who unhooked herself from an IV drip in the hospital during a rebel attack to flee into the forest with her newborn and came back days later with severe blood poisoning. But most people stay away from Pinga.

Not the first time

MSF is currently the only entity providing any kind of medical assistance in Pinga, months after all the other NGOs decided to leave.

In the past, insecurity has also prompted the medical humanitarian organization to either pull out of or suspend operations in other parts of North Kivu, such as in Masisi and Walikale.

The organization has resumed medical activities in those areas since, but Loof admits the environment “has always been challenging and remains so.”

In 2012, the M23 rebels managed to occupy the provincial capital of Goma for several days, injuring hundreds and forcing thousands to flee again to refugee camps in the north or to neighboring Burundi.

Now the situation has improved a bit, but the crisis remains huge, and MSF continues to deal with it the best it can. 

“The context and movement of armed groups and displaced people throughout North Kivu is extremely fluid and dynamic and changes day by day. Despite the challenges posed by the conflict, we continue to do our best to provide those suffering with free medical care,” said Loof.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.