Thinking Not in Numbers, But of Human Beings in DRC

As the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to be in the news, visitors to the Refugee Camp exhibit have been asking what MSF is doing to help the vast numbers of people who have been wounded and displaced yet again. Luis Encinas, a Refugee Camp exhibit guide who coordinates operational strategies for seven projects in the DRC, answers some questions.

What is the reality for the people in eastern DRC right now?

We are facing a very worrying situation on the ground right now in terms of the direct consequences of violence on civilians. The situation which started toward the end of August has been deteriorating in the last weeks. MSF is responding by providing medical and humanitarian support to them, concentrating our efforts of those people who have had to flee from one place to another place due to the volatile situation and instability.

What does the conflict translate to in terms of people's day to day existence?

It means you and your family are walking for miles and miles for days, needing shelter, water, food, to have the minimum for survival. And you need help immediately. As an international medical organization, we have an important role to play in giving that support—first to those who those have been wounded or those who need diagnoses and treatment for diseases.

Another major issue is cholera. We've already found many spots where cholera has emerged. The fact that people are arriving in high-concentration areas with a low levels of sanitation and a lack of water—those are the conditions where a cholera outbreak can develop quickly. That's one of MSF's expertise—setting up a cholera treatment center, isolating the patients and treating them, as well as starting to raise awareness in the area of how to recognize and prevent the disease in order to protect the people who are not yet sick.

Were many of these displaced people already displaced?

The fact that many of these people who are fleeing the violence had already fled before—two, three, who knows how many times they've been displaced—this makes them even more vulnerable to disease and increases their needs.

Another thing is the people that we are seeing in these camps may represent only 15 or 20 percent of the people who have been displaced. Many people who fled are staying with host families, possibly putting their hosts in danger of disease as well. So what we are seeing is really only the tip of the iceberg.

What obstacles is MSF facing in providing aid right now?

Lack of information and of security. It's hard to have a clear idea about the numbers of displaced people between those in the camps and those staying with host families. That makes it hard to know how large the needs are. Second is the security—it's tough in this situation to reach the population, so it's difficult to respond to their needs.

What have you been telling visitors who ask about what is happening in eastern Congo?

Since I arrived here in California, DRC has been at the top of the news and visitors to the camp have been asking about it and about what we are doing. I've given briefings to the other guides so they can give the key points to the public. The numbers that we talk about are, due to the lack of information, approximate, based on someone going camp to camp and doing a count, and they are given out to give a basic idea of the scope of the situation. But what is more important is for visitors to the camp not to think about this in terms of numbers—because we are talking about human beings here and of basic, humanitarian needs.