Congolese flee the eastern town of Sake, just west of Goma, on Friday. Fighting between rebel and government forces in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has displaced at least 100,000 people.
Congolese flee the eastern town of Sake, just west of Goma, on Friday. Fighting between rebel and government forces in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has displaced at least 100,000 people. Jerome Delay/AP
The rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo has set off another humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of displaced villagers who fled the fighting are on the march with their belongings, and someone has to take care of them.
Into this sea of need wades Tariq Riebl, a tall 34-year-old German with a shaved head. He is the humanitarian program coordinator for the international charity Oxfam in the rebel-held city of Goma.
"Basically, what we're going to do, we have two teams," Riebl says.
Tariq Riebl, Oxfam humanitarian coordinator in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, meets refugees at the Don Bosco Catholic School, where thousands of displaced persons are setting up camp.
Tariq Riebl, Oxfam humanitarian coordinator in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, meets refugees at the Don Bosco Catholic School, where thousands of displaced persons are setting up camp. John Burnett/NPR
His WSH team will take care of water, sanitation and hygiene, and the community services team is going to look at security, he says.
A Coordinated Response
The current emergency is the 5,000 to 10,000 Congolese refugees who have encamped on the grounds of Don Bosco Catholic School. People are being turned away from the school gymnasium, which is filled to capacity.
They are part of the roughly 100,000 to 150,000 internally displaced people — or IDPs — who have been set adrift during the current outbreak of hostilities in eastern Congo.
In these sorts of crises, agencies work together. The Red Cross is already here with water; the World Food Programme is planning high-calorie meals; Catholic Relief Services is looking at shelters; and Oxfam is here doing what it does really well — toilets.
This site needs Oxfam's expertise desperately. A large village is using latrines set up for a medium-sized school, with appalling results. It's basically one bathroom for thousands of people.
Fighting Cynicism, Too
Historically, displacement is the greatest killer during conflict — much more than bombs and bullets. In the Congo war from 1998 to 2004, more than a million people died from the conditions caused by forced travel and homelessness, such as preventable disease and malnutrition.
Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Somalia and Afghanistan, are enormous humanitarian challenges because conditions never seem to get better. The shooting starts again, people run for their lives, they fall ill and the whole cycle starts over.
Indeed, Oxfam workers have previously seen most of the people seeking refuge in this school. The next morning at breakfast, Riebl is in a contemplative mood.
"I was actually hesitant to come to North Kivu [province], I've done a lot of the big crisis zones and I'd always avoided Eastern Congo in general," he says. "I've had so many friends who've worked here and I could hear the cynicism and getting jaded progressively over time."
Moodiness is a luxury in this job. For the Oxfam team in Goma, the immediate concern is how to find the materials to build emergency latrines without any money. The banks are closed and supply lines disrupted by the armed standoff.
They will find a way.