The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is, without doubt, a dangerous place to be. After 20 years of fighting involving militias and armies from within and without the area, the International Rescue Committee estimates 5.5 million people have died as a consequence, many from starvation as a result of looting by rampaging armies. The conflict is driven by poverty, political ineptitude and greed for valuable minerals in the area. It is innocent people who suffer most. Rape is endemic in the area which is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, refugees and internally displaced people inhabit camps on the outskirts of Goma where they live under plastic sheeting on sharp lava from the recently exploded Nyiragongo volcano and maternal mortality is the highest in the world.
Comfort Congo is a partner of the Kilsyth based charity, Comfort Rwanda, set up in 1999 by Dr Callum Henderson from Kilsyth, and is a charity that has been registered in DRC. We also work closely with Valued, set up in 2011 and which is an initiative of Comfort Rwanda. The purpose of Valued is to make a difference and respond to two of the main issues facing women in DRC: lack of maternity care and the devastating effects of mass rape.
A team of 22 people from various parts of Scotland visited Rwanda in September/October 2013. Two members of Rock Community Church in Dumbarton, Billy and Fiona McClung, visited Goma as part of a 5 person team. Goma is situated just across the Rwanda/DRC border, the others being Julie Arbon (Paisley), Anne Reid (Broughty Ferry) and Callum Henderson, Director of Comfort Rwanda, (Kilsyth).
The primary reason behind the trip was to gain an overview of the work being undertaken in DRC with Comfort Rwanda and Comfort Congo.
After a three hour drive from Kigali to the Rwandan border at Gisenyi, laden with gifts including clothing and medical supplies, we completed border control requirements, visas having been obtained some months before. The changes in our surroundings were immediate as was the noticeable poverty. The once solid road surfaces had deteriorated significantly, evidencing a lack of maintenance over what appeared to be a significant period of time. This lack of maintenance also suggested that the government was unwilling or not prepared to make any financial investment into the area.
We managed to visit a few projects during our short visit. The first of these was to Bethlehem Sewing Workshop, situated in Goma. This is a workshop where vulnerable women and rape survivors undergo a 6 month training programme in sewing, using different types of mechanical and electrical sewing machines. It is hoped that many of these women will complete the course and go on to enter into business for themselves, possibly with the benefit of a micro finance loan which would allow them to start up a new business by contributing towards the costs of the machine, cloth and threads. In order to help finance this enterprise, we are currently considering whether we can open up spaces on the courses to those women who can afford to pay tuition fees which, in turn, makes a financial contribution to the workshop.
We also spent some time at Gesom Hospital, a 60-bed urban charity hospital in the provincial capital of Goma, a city with over 600,000 people and the largest UN peace-keeping force in the world……17,000 troops. The primary focus of this hospital is the war victims of sexual violence of the ongoing civil war. Survivors give horrifying accounts of systematic rape and torture. This brutal violence has left victims incontinent of urine and often stool, and so horribly, painfully scarred they are unable to have children. Comfort Congo, in partner with Valued and Comfort Rwanda provide birthing kits for expectant mums, and pay for vital repair surgery for victims of sexual violence which is carried out by Dr Mwarabu and hospital medical staff. It is acknowledged that conditions at the hospital as far from ideal, certainly by Western standards, however this is currently the best, if not the only place available for women to give birth in a relatively safe place, within the locale.
Maternal mortality and infant mortality rates in the area are amongst the highest in the world. Recent figures from Save the Children indicate that between 1 in 25 and 1 in 30 women die giving birth in DR Congo and the area of North Kivu, riven by war and poverty is one of the most dangerous areas in the world to give birth. The challenge of many women giving birth after multiple rape from the militias in the area, having also sustained serious injury, is also present. The principal cause of infant and maternal mortality is a lack of maternity facilities. In addition poor sanitation and general vulnerability due to poverty and poor housing contribute to the dangers. Roads are extremely challenging as the volcanic rock reduces even 4-wheel drives to 5-10 km per hour. Some people have only grass huts in which to live and if anything goes wrong with labour, the consequences are often fatal. Simple complications quickly escalate with terrible consequences for both mother and baby. It is hard to listen to women recount how they have had six children but the three born outside clinics all died and only those born in a clinic lived. The photograph shows an operating theatre in Gesom Hospital which, although extremely basic by our Western standards, does allow medical staff to save lives, both of mothers and their babies, as well as contributing to the physical and emotional wellbeing of those women who require surgery after being brutally raped.
In view of the above, Comfort Rwanda decided that they, in partnership with Comfort Congo and the local authority, would build a maternity clinic in Rusayo. Rusayo is located in a bush area to the north of Goma under the shadow of the Nyiragongo active volcano. This volcano last erupted in January 2002 and left 200,000 people homeless as the lava flow reached the city centre of Goma. Fundraising at Airedale Hospital in Bradford in May 2012 helped initiate the building of the clinic which will provide maternity services to women in the area which is largely composed of displaced people living in desperate conditions. The maternity clinic will have a 10 bed post-partum ward with cots for new born babies; a 4 bed labour ward; surgery/caesarean room; delivery room; observation/diagnosis room, a consultation room; treatment room and pharmacy. In addition, we hope to have 2 private rooms for those patients who are able to make a financial contribution for their healthcare. In addition refugees from the Mugunga camps near Goma will also have access to the clinic. (We actually drove through Mugunga 3 camp, consisting of some 20,000 internally displaced people, on our way to the building site). Two small general wards with associated pharmacy have been included in the build at the request of local authorities as the clinic will be the only health provision in the Rusayo area. Dr Mwarabu, a dedicated and skilled doctor in Goma, is working with Comfort Congo to help develop the facility.
Billy and Fiona McClung, both members of Rock Community Church in Dumbarton, visited the building site in September 2013 with others from Comfort Rwanda. Fiona McClung has been a midwife at the Vale of Leven Hospital Community Maternity Unit in Alexandria for the past 25 years or so and was actively involved in identifying the level of equipment required for each section of the maternity clinic and general wards in order to ensure that expectant mothers and other service users receive the best and safest level of care and support. Fiona is pictured during the site visit (second from the right). As can be seen, the building still needs to be completed. Funds are urgently needed to get the building finished, and for equipping and staffing the clinic. The quicker we can get the windows and doors in and the roof on the quicker lives will be saved. We need to raise in the region of £35,000 to complete the build as well as a need to secure the fixtures and fittings required to enable medical and ancillary staff to operate within a safe environment. We have written to Aggreko, who have a sales office in Rwanda, close to the border with DRC, to see if they would support us by providing a generator with which we can operate the facility as access to mains electricity can be difficult.
One of the schools we visited was Kizeye School in Kaziba where we evidenced large numbers of children being educated in large huts. The first class room we visited had in excess of 120 children with little or no materials (pictured left). Conditions are very difficult and teachers are on very low salaries. Their passion and determination to succeed however was very apparent as was the mutual respect between teacher and pupils. The total school population was in the region of 750 pupils, with some of these being ex child soldiers. Some ex child soldiers were abducted from their homes and forced to become soldiers. Some villages were forced into providing a certain number of child soldiers to in exchange from being attacked. Some children were even volunteered by their parents due to extreme poverty and hunger at home. In rare cases, children volunteered to join the fight for ideological reasons or to avenge the death of family members. The DRC government made a commitment in 2012 that they would no longer use child soldiers. Although we met some of these ex child soldiers during our recent visit, for privacy reasons I am not showing a photograph of them. In some places, sadly, being an ex-child soldier is as likely to make them a target as an object of sympathy. Although these young people are no longer child soldiers, it is recognised that the effects on children are felt long after their physical scars have healed and their drug dependencies overcome. Many child soldiers are desensitised to violence - often at a very formative time in their development and this can psychologically damage them for life. Even when they're set free or escape, many children can't go back home to their families and communities because they've been ostracised due to their actions and behaviours. Some of them may have been forced to kill a family member or neighbour so they can never go back. Many girls have babies from their time in the rebel groups and their communities/families don't accept them home. Most have missed out on school - sometimes for many years. Without an education they have very little future prospects and sometimes return to the rebel groups as they have simply no other way of feeding themselves. We saw it as extremely encouraging therefore that a number of the pupils at Kizeye School advised us that they wish to continue with their education and perhaps access positions