A few weeks ago, we flew into a village named Banda to assess the nutritional situation. After having determined that the situation was critical, we returned to the village for a five-day nutritional intervention and to assess the health-care situation of the local people.
For a number of reasons, the trip was exhausting. The work was intense, and I think that we exhausted not only ourselves, but also the health-care providers of the village.
Prior to the rebel army attack on Banda last March, Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) had worked there for a number of years.
One of the goals of our trip was to assess the need and possibility of reinstating a project there – but as MSF had staff kidnapped during the rebel attacks we needed to have a lot of data to support a return. We demanded every health-care statistic recorded, even though most data had been destroyed when the Lord’s Resistance Army attacked last year.
Besides facilitating the nutritional intervention, we spent hours training health-care providers on how to treat sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections.
The Congolese army has moved into the village to protect the community against the LRA, but unfortunately there is no one to protect the village from the army.
I spoke to the women leaders of the community who discussed the number of women raped when going to get water, or going into the fields.
The fields aren’t safe due to the LRA, so the army ‘escorts’ the women into the fields to protect them while they farm and collect produce – and a vicious cycle ensues. One after another, women stoically described to me having to make the unimaginable choice of either being repeatedly raped by soldiers, or watching their children die of malnutrition because they chose not to be raped.
Three days into the trip, I was beyond exhausted. We had worked relentlessly but when the incessant sweating hit I knew that malaria had found me. For my last two days in Banda I was sure that I was dying. On one of those days, I went into the camp for the displaced people, to screen for malnutrition. For a village that has seen so much pain, it is absolutely beautiful – big palm trees, tiny dirt paths, mud huts. Many people are understandably very reserved.
In one area the nurse I was with explained that we had to walk around a hut so as not to bother the man outside. I asked why, and was told that the manÂ had come home after the LRA attack to find his family brutally murdered in his hut – and he has never been the same again.
It is a story that is not uncommon there.
Over and over again, we came across stories of unimaginable atrocities. And throughout it all I was sweating so profusely that I couldn’t discern if it was my whole body crying – crying for the little I can do, and for the intensity of grief that exists in this beautiful country.
The flight back to Dingila was torturous for me – I was definitely sure, and I suspect the rest of the team was as well – that I would perish in the plane. As our plane also carried a large order of medication, a truck had been specially organized to transport all of the material the three kilometres to the base.
As the road system has been decimated by years of civil war, only small paths exist and we get around on motorbikes. There are only three trucks in the village – and thankfully they are very rarely used. We have used two of the trucks on different occasions – always with disastrous results.
When I got off the plane, partially delirious and definitely doubtful about the truck, the logistician assured me that this truck would be different because the driver had promised him it had three brakes. Three brakes for four wheels was a better statistic than before. But still, I was glad to get on the motorbike – which had two brakes for two wheels – which got me safely home so I could recover.
It is exhausting, but I am alive, and everyday I feel lucky and honoured to be here. I don’t know any other place I would want to be right now, and I feel lucky to have the support of so many people from home.
Tricia Newport is a nurse who lives in Whitehorse. This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from Congo.