By Josh Harris, Communications Officer
South Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) feels like one of the greenest places on earth. Every inch of the fertile brown soil seems to pour forth dense vegetation. Within minutes of leaving behind the chaos and energy of Bukavu, the province’s main city, a landscape of green rolling hills unfolds uninterrupted for hundreds of miles in every direction. Only deterioration in the quality of the roads reminds you of the distance travelled.
Yet despite the fertility of the soil, malnutrition is a common problem for the people of South Kivu. As I travelled around the province visiting International Medical Corps-supported health centres, doctors and nurses told me of the steady stream of emaciated children they see. Most frequently, these patients are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) or from host families that have welcomed into their homes as many as six IDP families fleeing violence.
The dense jungle covering much of eastern DRC has provided refuge to scores of armed groups during the more than 15 years of conflict that has plagued this region. Even today, the remnants of various militias remain, bringing fear and insecurity to a vast area. Recent fighting in North Kivu province has forced a further 19,000 people from their homes, bringing the number of IDPs in eastern DRC to over 2 million (UNHCR). International Medical Corps’ commitment to working in areas with the greatest need meant that, during my brief time in South Kivu, two of our offices had to be temporarily closed because of the proximity of fighting.
The frustration that I heard repeated over and again among the Congolese that I met was rooted in the potential and desire for positive change rubbing up against thelimits imposed by continuing insecurity. Chance, a student volunteer at International Medical Corps’ office in Bunyakiri, is fluent in Swahili, French and English and will soon graduate from college. Yet despite representing DRC’s promising tomorrow, he asked me:
“How can I plan a future away from here, when I know that my family is not secure?”
At the same time, I saw the generosity of Congolese people demonstrated every hour of my stay, as they welcomed me into their communities and shared their stories. More remarkable was their willingness to welcome IDP families into their homes, often for months or years at a time, even at the risk of their own health and prosperity. The International Medical Corps staff I met—along with the doctors and nurses in health centres we support; the teachers, police officers and soldiers we have trained in the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence; and the communities we have reached—were unified by their determination to secure a better future for their country. Many times, I heard people comment that their children would live far happier lives than they had:
It is easy to dismiss DRC as a failed state, beyond hope: its modern history is punctuated with suffering and hardship on an almost unimaginable scale, much of it cantered on the provinces of North and South Kivu, and violence continues today. Yet to do so would mean disregarding the greatest asset that this region has– the determination of the Congolese people, including some of the most professional and dedicated individuals I have worked with, to secure a brighter future for their country. I feel privileged to be part of International Medical Corps, which is standing side-by-side with DRC’s people as they rebuild and prepare for a time when insecurity no longer frustrates their progress.
Just 22 hours after the devastating 7.0-earthquake hit in January 2010, International Medical Corps’ Emergency Response Team was on the ground in Haiti providing medical care to survivors. Our doctors and nurses were able to mobilise on an unparalleled scale to provide 24-hour emergency care to the acutely injured at the Hôpital de l’Université d’État d’Haiti (HUEH), a 700-bed hospital in Port-au-Prince. HUEH was badly damaged in the earthquake and many local health care professionals were missing. We were able to save thousands of lives through emergency and trauma care in the critical days following the earthquake.
At the height of emergency operations at the hospital, International Medical Corps treated approximately 1,000 patients per day. Our early entry also gave us the foundation to rapidly expand our operations to 15 mobile clinics throughout Haiti to provide critical services. Through the hospital and mobile and fixed clinics, International Medical Corps teams provided more than 110,000 patient consultations during the first year following the emergency.
When reports of acute diarrhoea emerged from the north of Haiti in October 2010, International Medical Corps doctors and nurses immediately deployed to the region providing emergency relief for the growing cholera crisis. Our network of rapidly constructed cholera treatment centres, supported by 820 community health volunteers to educate communities on how to prevent and identify cholera, meant that more than 30,000 cholera patients received life-saving treatment within the first year following the outbreak.
International Medical Corps was among the first organisations to enter Libya once the conflict began in February 2011, providing emergency medical care to casualties from the fighting and support to hospitals with medical staff and supplies. Among the first challenges our Emergency Response Teams encountered was a chronic shortage of nurses, as thousands of foreign nurses had fled the country. In partnership with the Jordan Health Aid Society, International Medical Corps immediately deployed volunteer nurses to health centres across eastern Libya moving them to towns and cities throughout the country as access permitted. Volunteer nurses trained the local counterparts while working alongside them.
At the country’s borders and within Libya, we supplied those displaced by the fighting with essential relief items, including blankets, bottled water and food. Recognising the danger posed by communicable diseases, our sanitation and hygiene specialists constructed latrines and washing stations in transit camps along the Tunisia borders.
As the fighting went on International Medical Corps worked as close to the front line as possible, providing emergency treatment to those injured in the conflict, and medicines and supplies to besieged towns and cities. In Misurata, inaccessible by road, we evacuated nearly 500 injured civilians by boat. International Medical Corps’ mobile field hospitals treated the wounded from battles in Tripoli, the Western Mountains, Bani Walid, Sabha, Jufrah and Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte.
International Medical Corps mobilized an emergency response in Mali in January 2013 after rebel armed forces from the north began moving south, triggering French military intervention. In Timbuktu, which had spent months under the control of armed Islamist rebel our team were amongst the first international organisations to arrive and found pillaged clinics, missing medical personnel and damaged health infrastructure.
We immediately began supporting eight strategically targeted health clinics in remote areas around Timbuktu, where the Malian Ministry of Health has been unable to maintain adequate services to local communities. By providing medicines, training staff and recruiting qualified doctors and nurses, we can ensure local people will now have access to basic primary and secondary health care for the first time in months
True to our mission to build self reliance, International Medical Corps is also already training community health workers to go out to local markets and spread essential hygiene, reproductive health and nutrition messages. We are also working to rehabilitate clinics damaged during the conflict, by building or repairing latrines, water systems, solar panel systems and other infrastructure repairs, enabling health workers to have stable and well-equipped facilities to help the people of Mali.
Basanti, a young mother of two in Nepal, returned home from fetching water for her family to find her 8-month old son Bishal had fallen into the open cooking fire. Basanti was in shock, but she wrapped her baby in blankets and ran for help. No one in their village or at the local health post knew what to do so she had to travel more than six hours by bus to seek emergency care at the closest hospital. The district hospital could only stabilize Bishal and wasn’t able to treat his wounds properly. As a result, his little fingers contracted into a fist as the burned skin contracted and “healed” over the coming year, making it impossible for him to use his hand. His cheek, lips and eyelid also contracted and tightened, threatening his vision.
After selling part of their farm to pay for transportation to Kathmandu, Basanti sought further treatment for her baby. However, two hospitals in the nation’s capital could not help either. Adding to Basanti’s struggles, her husband abandoned the family, leaving her alone to care for Bishal and his four-year-old sister.
Thankfully, Basanti heard about the surgical care available through ReSurge International, our trusted partner with a 43-year history of serving burn victims. Dr. Rai, ReSurge’s Outreach Director in Nepal, and his team restored Bishal’s eyelid and his hand will soon be surgically repaired as well.
Even though it took more than a year for him to get appropriate treatment, Bishal is one of the lucky ones. Thousands of children never get the care they need to live a normal life after a disabling burn.