Mai-Mai militias and government forces have been clashing in the area around Shamwana, Katanga province, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since November 2013. Villages have been burned to the ground, and people have fled.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) calls on armed groups in Katanga province to respect and ensure the safety of civilians and allow them to access healthcare.
In November and December, villages along the roads between Shamwana town and Dubie, Mitwaba and Mpiana were burned. Between December 25 and January 1, 2014, the villages of Lenge, Nkonkole, Lubinda, Kabwesungu and Kilambwilu were burned.
Hundreds of people have fled in fear, leaving their homes, businesses and belongings behind to seek shelter in surrounding villages and in the bush. Hundreds of families have sought refuge in at least eight nearby villages. Some of those who fled have been intimidated or coerced into relocating or returning to their villages.
To make matters worse, the rainy season has begun, and many people will be sleeping outdoors without shelter from the elements.
“Vulnerable people are not able to access the medical care and humanitarian assistance they need,” said Thomas Mollet, MSF head of mission in Katanga. “The security situation is tense and organizations can’t move around freely. As civilians risk being caught up in the fighting and mistaken for combatants, we fear that they are not going out to seek care.”
At Shamwana hospital, MSF teams have seen falling patient numbers compared to previous years, suggesting that people are now going without medical care. In November 2013, there were 30 per cent fewer outpatient consultations than in the same month the previous year. In December, 18 patients receiving long-term care for HIV and tuberculosis at Shamwana hospital did not return for further essential treatment.
“If people aren’t able to access healthcare, it will surely cost lives,” said Mollet. “Armed groups in Katanga province, including the national army, must respect and ensure the safety of civilians and allow them to access the medical services that they need.”
MSF continues to work in Shamwana hospital despite the ongoing fighting and the deteriorating security situation. Teams are also running mobile clinics, carrying out water and sanitation activities and distributing bed nets in the area.
The region has a violent history. In 2005, clashes between Mai-Mai militias and the army in this part of Katanga province resulted in many people being killed, raped, injured or displaced. MSF has struggled to continue its medical work in the area.