The last few days have been equal parts swearing (under my breath) and praying. The truth is it’s hard not to whisper a swear word to yourself when you see an almost 18 month old that weighs 6.2 kilos because of malnutrition. It’s hard not to swear as you watch a woman give birth in a makeshift hospital tent inside a refugee camp. It’s hard not to swear when a woman rushes into that same medical tent to say a one week old baby has been abandoned and hasn’t been fed since who knows when. As the quiet gasps escape my mouth I find myself immediately turning to pray.
Right now there’s an invisible crisis happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and I’ve just spent three days listening to horrendous stories and witnessing first-hand the tremendous influx of refugees coming out of there. It’s invisible because hardly anyone’s talking about it and honestly, I get it. It certainly feels to me like some country in Africa is always at war and Congo’s often the culprit. It’s become part of the wallpaper of our lives.
But in the last few weeks things have escalated significantly in Congo. For most of last year 30-75 people crossed the borders from Congo to Uganda each day. But since around Jan 1st 2018, that’s gone up to a whopping 500 on average per day. Thousands upon thousands of families now wait up to a week at a transit centre before being transported to the nearest refugee settlement about 7 hours drive away. My assignment was with Medical Teams International who are THE provider of health and nutrition services for all of these Congolese refugees. Their operations in Uganda also extend to other borders and they have about 1500 staff working around the clock to provide healthcare services to these very vulnerable people.
I often wish I could take you all with me on these trips so this time instead of sharing photos, I’m going to share four one minute iPhone videos that will hopefully help bring it to life even more. No filters, no editing.
Video 1: ON ARRIVAL: After crossing the border of Congo into Uganda, refugees wait until the UNHCR trucks arrive at the border to take them to Nyabatande Transist Center. The minute they hop of the truck, this is what happens to them. In a rare quiet moment I took this quick video. (1:39 seconds)
Video 2: HEALTH SCREENING: After health screening and food ration cards are given, families make their way over to the health clinic. Within ten minutes of arriving in this tent on my first day I watched as a woman gave birth on the exact bed you’ll see on this video. Silently and without any fuss. The head was already out when she hoisted herself onto the table and began to push. She was a frail little thing with a steel resolve. The huge rip in the side is for impromptu air flow. The MTI women attending to her were confident, calm and professional and had that room cleaned up after her delivery within minutes. She then lay on that floor with a cardboard box folded in half for a pillow. Her baby sleeping peacefully under the one blanket she had to her name. (1:01 second)
Video 3: INSIDE THE ACCOMMODATION: The line for the Office for the Prime Minister (people in charge of camps) and UNHCR is usually hundreds long. The sheer numbers and the smell are often overwhelming. The day before I took this video I spotted a group of four young boys aged 6-12 huddled together and all alone. I enquired as to their situation and discovered they had arrived without parents at the camp. Three of them were in matching t-shirts and it took everything in me to stop the tears from falling as I looked at how scared and vulnerable they were in that moment. Who would help them get food? Who would give them a blanket to sleep under? Who would kiss them as they went to sleep that night inside those big red buildings you’ll see in this video? (1:10 seconds)
Video 4: FOOD. What are refugees eating? How do you serve 2700 people on any one day? This is a video of one of the kitchens. (56 seconds)
Medical Teams International is an NGO with an incredible reputation both here in Uganda and around the world and I’ve had the privilege of seeing their work in action in multiple locations. The main health issues they are facing right now with Congolese refugees are malaria, respiratory infections and malnutrition. The MTI team is large and powerful. They are efficient and effective and they have their work down to a fine art. They are caring and kind whilst also firm about procedures and practices being at the highest standard possible in this unique situation. The context within which they are working is all consuming and exhausting and most staff are working 8am-8pm. When a convoy leaves (carrying 600 people to the refugee settlement) they are up at 4am to get everyone ready.
I count it as one of the most incredible privileges to be asked to help bring these stories to life. To shine a light on some of the darkest places in our world and to share the work of remarkable NGO’s giving everything they’ve got. I have no answers for you or myself as to why things are the way they are. I have hope though. I see it in the faces of staff committed to working around that clock to bring healing. I see it in the smiles of mothers who are handed a blanket and some utensils to help them cook again for the family. The dignity of that is not lost on me. I see it in the bouncy nature of little children running around after soccer balls donated by people like you and me to help distract them for but a moment from the pain of losing their Daddy last week. And I see it in you, the people that read this blog as you comment, ‘like’, share and donate to continue to keep these organistions running. No matter what story I bring you, your compassion doesn’t run out. Your interest doesn’t wane. And your love, action and prayers for these people is felt and changes things.