05 Aug 09 28 Nov 16

DRC: Twenty-five lashes for breakfast

Mboli (16) was abducted in January from his school along with 20 fellow students, including his brother, Muka, during an attack on his village in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). His village was just one of those targeted in a relentless series of attacks by Ugandan rebel group, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

"They made us carry what they stole from our school and village," says Mboli. "They beat us, telling us 'Go Quickly. Go Quietly'. I had to carry spare bicycle parts, in a waist-high sack. Others were hauling kilos of ground nuts, bags of rice, even a guitar, and the solar energy system from our church."

Violent reprisal attacks

A joint military offensive by the national armies of Uganda, the DRC and Southern Sudan against the LRA, exacerbated the situation, sparking more violent reprisal attacks by the rebel group against civilians in northeastern Congo.

During these attacks, entire Congolese villages are looted, often burnt to the ground, people hacked to death with machetes, women and children abducted for use as sexual slaves, or forced to carry looted goods or recruited to the conflict.

"They killed people we passed later on the road, right in front of me," Mboli continues. "They beat them with sticks, stabbed them with bayonets, and threw their bodies into the river. I was afraid that if I stopped to rest they would kill me too, so I marched and marched under the weight of that heavy sack." 

Toxic climate of fear reigns

According to official estimates, up to 250,000 Congolese have been displaced from their lands and livelihoods. Entire families have been ripped apart and a toxic climate of fear reigns.

Tens of thousands have fled as refugees to neighbouring Southern Sudan, seeking safety and assistance in the Sudanese border-states of Central and Western Equatoria.

However, the LRA are present in those states too, where sporadic attacks have also displaced thousands of Sudanese. OCHA estimates that there are 50,000 Congolese refugees and Sudanese displaced in Western and Eastern Equatoria.

After three days, the LRA ordered Mboli and some other boys to leave, but not his brother. Mboli was ordered to run, without time to even say goodbye to Muka. He returned to his family home, but everything was destroyed, everyone had fled.

"Father and mother had stayed close by, hiding in the forest to get news of us. When I told them Muka was still captive, my father started crying. But he said there was no way to wait for him, that we had to run."

No time to bury the dead

In the frenzied panic of fleeing a direct attack, there's often no time to wait for the slowest and the oldest, no time to bury the dead. Others, like Mboli and his parents, who flee ahead of new bouts of violence and bloodshed, frantically gather what family and possessions they can, abandoning homes and livelihoods to begin the treacherous journey across the border.

© Brendan Bannon A group of refugees fleeing from Congo to Southern Sudan, on th

People escape through the dense pluvial rainforest connecting the DRC and Southern Sudan. Relentlessly on the lookout for rebels, refugees lives are also at risk from wild animals.

Many survive by eating jungle roots and drinking whatever water they can find, only moving forward once they believe the track ahead is clear.

Seeking assistance in Sudan

Once in Sudan they either seek assistance in the new refugee camps, or build temporary shelters within Sudanese communities. They group as close as they can to big gatherings of people, hoping for security in numbers.

They also stay close to roads leading back to Congo, awaiting news from newly-arriving refugees about loved ones left behind, or abducted.

Sometimes they even travel back to their fields in Congo to try to tend to their lands, in the hope they can grow some food for the next harvest.

Region fraught with tension

However, Southern Sudan itself is a region fraught with tension, with increasingly violent clashes in several areas, deep poverty and an acute lack of access to basic services.

In the border states near Congo, driven by fear of further attacks, some groups of Congolese refugees and Sudanese fashion their own weapons, organising community patrols to try to protect themselves.

"It's sad that these people must come looking for safety in a region that is not even secure itself" says Karl Nawezi, MSF's Head of Mission for Southern Sudan.

"Our medical teams across Southern Sudan already battle to cope with the huge needs that exist for the Sudanese. Yet, Congolese patients tell us that they somehow feel a little safer here, despite the fact that the LRA is also active in the region."

© Brendan Bannon Shelters in a refugee camp in Central Equatorial State in South

Treated with dignity

As the refugees began to stream across the border and the displaced Sudanese began to move within the southeastern border states, MSF teams already providing medical aid in the country quickly established emergency projects to provide healthcare, shelter and sanitation for the displaced and refugees.

In September 2008, MSF teams in Western Equatorial State (WES) began to assist a population of more than 15,000 refugees and displaced. Then in February 2009, MSF started a second emergency programme in Central Equatorial State (CES) to assist another 7,000 refugees.

Karl continues, "People who flee have urgent needs. The first week we opened our clinic in one of the refugee camps we received 500 people.

Imagine a heavily-pregnant woman fleeing through the jungle, to a country she doesn't know, then having to give birth. We are here to offer her somewhere safe to deliver her child, somewhere she can be cared for to ensure she and others like her can be treated with dignity."

© Brendan Bannon Congolese man Siriche stands behind his wife Aroyo Jose and chi

Peace of mind destroyed

Medical aid, food, shelter and sanitation are all essential to assist victims of this violence. Yet this is only one part of the healing people require.

Living in persistent terror of attack, many refugees are completely traumatised. As well as losing loved ones, they have also lost their sense of security, their peace of mind destroyed. MSF teams try to address this through specific mental health projects for those affected by violence, including women and children who escaped abduction.

MSF counselors organise group and individual sessions, while also working to raise awareness in the community about the psychological impact of violence and how people can seek help. To date they have provided specific mental health support to more than 300 people.

"I will never forget one lady - she used to sit under a tree in the camp, weeping. Her daughter had been raped in front of her and then abducted. She didn't know whether she was dead or alive." recalls Francesca Mangia, the MSF Project Coordinator in the refugee camp in Central Equatorial State.

"The violence has destroyed lives. People don't sleep because attacks on their villages took place as darkness fell and they are afraid to close their eyes at night."

© Brendan Bannon Justin is a young Congolese boy, partially paralysed, whose fat

Refugees continue to cross the border into Southern Sudan every week. Uncertain of when the violence will end or if they can ever return to their homes again, a sense of hopelessness and uncertainty permeates their lives, and those of the displaced.

© Brendan Bannon MBOLI is worried. He and his parents are effectively trapped as

Four months after reaching Sudan, Mboli received the good news that somehow his brother Muka had managed to escape from the LRA, and that he was in a hospital in the DRC.

His father tried to travel back to Congo to find Muka, but the roads were too dangerous and it was impossible. He will try again once he thinks it is safe. However, life for Mboli and his family, remains bleak.

"I'm so worried about Muka, about our future. The LRA are in my home in Congo. I am a refugee in Sudan, but they are also here. There is nothing to think about the future. What future?"

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