Médecins Sans Frontières international president Joanne Liu just came back from Kananga city in Kasai Central province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here are her impressions of the ongoing crisis there.
“During my recent visit to Kasai I went with our teams to a rural part of the region that has been particularly affected by violence. Villages and field have been burnt and several mass graves have been discovered there. A man approached us and said very simply, in a composed manner, “The violence was so terrible here that we didn’t hear the birds sing for days.” Yet when I first arrived I got the impression that nothing had happened here. Kananga is a fairly typical, bustling Congolese town of around 750,000 people. The markets were full and loud music played from the small shops. This was certainly not the situation that my colleagues discovered last March. Silence filled the town. Not a single school or shop was open. Fear was everywhere.
"The armed men took her away and kept her tied up on the floor for ten days. They raped her so many times it’s impossible to say how many"
There are other images from this visit that have stayed with me. I remember seeing a teenage girl laughing and running after other children along the hospital corridors. It was as if nothing had happened to her. But several weeks before, her sister had been decapitated in front of her eyes. The armed men took her away and kept her tied up on the floor for ten days. They raped her so many times it’s impossible to say how many. “If you speak, we’ll cut your head off like we did to your sister” they told her. What is clear is that the people of Kasai have lived through so much, it’s barely imaginable.
The crisis in Kasai started a year ago, but it’s taken a lot of time for us to realise its magnitude. During the worst months, no humanitarian aid arrived here – and now it’s still extremely limited. Why did communities not ask for help sooner? A village elder replied: “When you are lying on the ground and people are shooting at you, you can’t get up and run.” We at Médecins Sans Frontières only started to work in Kananga in March – very late, too late surely – and today we are still conscious that we are just scratching the surface of the problem.
“When you are lying on the ground and people are shooting at you, you can’t get up and run.”
The wounds of the patients that Médecins Sans Frontières treats tell us about the extreme levels of violence that the people of Kasai are facing. Out of fear, some grievously injured people have waited days, weeks before trying to see a doctor… For example, one of the patients our surgical team treated had his hand cut off. He hid in the bush for several weeks, afraid of being found and killed, treating his stump with traditional medicines. By the time he arrived at our hospital, an abscess had formed and a serious infection had developed in the bones of his forearm. His chances of avoiding a further amputation are slim. If our mental health teams ask what has happened, our patients never tell us who has inflicted this violence – the fear is always there – but they tell us their stories, invariably awful: your husband decapitated in front of your eyes, your wife raped in front of you and your children while you are tied up, forced to watch.
The crisis in Kasai is like a forest fire during the driest summer months: one spark in August 2016 has ignited the whole region. Millions of people have been caught in the trap of militia attacks, army repression, and even localised conflicts which have nothing to do with the initial spark but have exploded due to the chaos that reigned. The lack of access due to security problems makes it difficult