The rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo has set off another humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of displaced villagers who fled the fighting are on the march with their belongings, and someone has to take care of them.
Into this sea of need wades a tall, 34-year-old German with a shaved head named Tariq Riebl. In the rebel-held city of Goma, he is the humanitarian program coordinator for the international charity Oxfam.
“Basically what we’re going to do, we have two teams,” Riebl says. “Wash team is going to look at everything that’s water [and] sanitation; then we have a community services [team], and they’re going to look at security.”
The current emergency is the 5,000 to 10,000 Congolese refugees that have encamped on the grounds of Don Bosco Catholic School. People are now being turned away from the school gymnasium, which is already filled to capacity.
They’re part of the roughly 150,000 internally displaced people — or IDPs — that have been set adrift during the current outbreak of hostilities in eastern Congo.
In these sorts of crises, agencies work together. The Red Cross is already here with water; the World Food Programme is planning high-calorie meals; Catholic Relief Services is looking at shelters; and Oxfam here doing what it does really well – toilets.
This site needs Oxfam’s expertise desperately. A large village is using latrines set up for a medium-sized school, with appalling results. It’s basically one bathroom for thousands of people.
“We have the other side but it’s in the same situation. So it’s quite a big site,” says Clovis Mwuambutsa, the coordinator for Oxfam in North Kivu Province.
What’s important to remember is that historically, this is the greatest killer, much more than bombs and bullets. In the Congo war from 1998 to 2004, more than a million people died from the conditions of displacement such as preventable disease and malnutrition.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, along with Somalia and Afghanistan, are enormous humanitarian challenges because conditions never seem to get better. The shooting starts again, people run for their lives, they fall ill and the whole cycle starts over.
Indeed, Oxfam workers have seen most of the people seeking refuge in this school before. The next morning at breakfast, Oxfam’s Tariq Riebl is in a contemplative mood.
“I was actually hesitant to come to North Kivu, I’ve done a lot of the big crisis zones and I’d always avoided Eastern Congo in general,” he says. “I’ve had so many friends who’ve worked here and I could hear the cynicism and getting jaded progressively over time.”
Moodiness is a luxury in this job. For the Oxfam team in Goma, the immediate concern is how to find the materials to build emergency latrines without any money. The banks are closed and supply lines disrupted by the armed standoff.
They will find a way.