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On the front lines in Congo’s Bunia

/ Source: NBC News

The Democratic Republic of Congo has been torn apart by a ferocious war involving six countries since 1998 that has killed an estimated 3 million people and been dubbed “Africa’s World War III.” A fresh wave of ethnic slaughter in the northeast of the country has left at least 500 dead in the last six weeks, leaving humanitarian groups struggling to cope with the disaster.

AFTER WEEKS of debate, the United Nations authorized a French-led force to deploy in the region this month, an effort to supplement a lightly armed force of Uruguayan troops who were unable to stop the violence.

Since 1999, the ethnic clashes in the region of Ituri, of which Bunia is the capital city, have claimed more than 50,000 lives. Thousands more have been displaced by fighting between the Hema and Lendu tribes, which escalated after Ugandan forces withdrew as part of an international peace agreement aimed at ending the conflict in Congo.

The fighting has taxed humanitarian groups to the hilt they are unable to care for people outside the immediate vicinity of Bunia’s center.

On Friday, the United Nations said that two U.N. observers were seized by unknown assailants in the town of Beni, about 70 miles from Bunia.

A month earlier, two other observers with the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) were killed in a similarly remote area of the vast country, which is the size of western Europe.


Fred Meylan, field coordinator for Doctors without Borders, the European charity organization, has worked in a variety of crisis zones, including Ethiopia, and Angola to Sri Lanka and Liberia. He says the situation in Bunia is the worst humanitarian situation he’s witnessed in 12 years.

“To find massive destruction you don’t have to go so far,” he said. “You have massive destruction with guns and machetes. You don’t need chemical weapons.”

He was interviewed by NBC’s Petra Cahill.

How bad is the situation in Bunia right now?

There is no direct fighting at the moment [in Bunia]. But we see the people coming to the hospital. We just can’t witness the state of the people here. They are suffering a lot. We receive people wounded by bullet, by machete. One or two [surgery] cases a day more or less. It depends on the day, but these people are no longer coming from Bunia itself. They are coming from the surrounding area. Since one week, few of them are from Bunia.

The humanitarian situation, what is the biggest problem?

On the humanitarian side, it is very bad. We do around 150-160 consultations a day for malaria, respiratory infection, diarrhea. People are coming very late to the hospital. They are coming from very far away. Sometimes they haven’t eaten in 10-15 days. Sometimes they have problems walking, because they are too sick to reach the hospital. It’s quite critical. It’s very bad situation.

How have things changed since the French peace-keeping forces have arrived?

What can I say, it is not for me to comment on the presence of the French or anyone else. On the medical side we still receive 160 patients per day. We still see the Internally Displaced Camp. It is very near our clinic; it is growing. We still need a complete surgery team here. The humanitarian side, the medical situation, is worsening.

Do you see any prospect for hope?

We have to wait and see, but we don’t know, in fact. We don’t know what will happen. People are always hoping it will be better, anyway, but until now people are still coming to install themselves in the Internally Displaced Camp, [and] that is a clear sign of people feeling insecure.

How is this situation compared to some of the other war-torn countries you’ve worked in before?

This one, it is personal opinion, but it is one of the worst situations I’ve seen in 12 years. On the humanitarian and medical side, it is one of the worst I’ve seen.

It is one of the worst because [Thursday] I just transferred a child with a bullet in the hand, and he is going to lose one finger for nothing. He has nothing to do with the problems in this country.

When civilians and weak civilians begin to be victims, it is always horrible. In this case the majority of the victims are civilians. I’m sorry, but it is horrible.

Are you ever fearful for your own safety?

You always have to be afraid in this kind of situation. If not, it means that you are crazy. It is such a fragile situation that we have to be careful what we do. It is always a balance between the risks and the volume of the medical care you can give. Right now, we believe it is worth the risks to do the job we are doing.

Petra Cahill is an assignment editor for NBC News.