Hell on earth. Renate Sinke is silent for a moment, they ask her about the first thing she saw when she arrived in eastern Congo. But she repeats, after a little thought, emphatically: hell on earth. Across the black lava floor, along the edges of the provincial capital of Goma, the refugee camp stretches as far as the eye can see. Everywhere are tents made of reclaimed wood and plastic sheeting piled up against each other. People everywhere. Sometimes it rains heavy downpours.

There are five patients per mattress on the beds in one of the cholera clinics that MSF has set up there. There is not enough drinking water. Too few resources and people to help all patients and those in need.

Renate Sinke, MSF country coordinator, has just returned home, half-packed, from North Kivu, the eastern Congo province where dozens of rebel groups fight each other for various reasons. Where the front lines change every week, where villages are held by one battlegroup and then another. The government army has been unable to quell the lawlessness for years, not even with the help of the UN mission Monusco or neighboring countries like Burundi and Uganda.

huge lines of people

In front of the points where drinking water is distributed in the camps around Goma, Sinke sees huge lines of people, crowds actually, tens of meters long, twenty meters wide. There are very few latrines, maybe 1 in 500 people. People relieve themselves in plastic bags, which they throw anywhere because people don’t know where else.

It is difficult to dig more latrines: the heavy machinery of aid organizations is falling to pieces on the hard lava soil of Bulengo or Lushagala. Speaking of that lava floor: several people die in the camps due to the toxic methane fumes emanating from the ground.

For the past six months, one of the largest groups, the M23, with supposed but always denied support from neighboring Rwanda, has experienced a destabilizing rise. The violence has left a million people displaced in the last year alone, in a province where fewer than eight million people live.

There is hunger. The UN World Food Program distributes food, but had to suspend some shipments in February after being attacked by militias. Doctors Without Borders says it will have treated more than 8,000 malnourished children by 2022.

Bulengo refugee camp, six miles outside of Goma, photographed on April 1.  Getty Image Images

Bulengo refugee camp, six miles outside of Goma, photographed on April 1.Getty Image Images

In mid-March, the camp suddenly grew from 30,000 to perhaps 200,000 inhabitants. In three days, says Sinke. Suddenly they were there. Refugees come from everywhere, because it is still relatively safe around Goma.

null image Thijs van Dalen

Picture Thijs van Dalen

The smell of wet mud

It stinks, but she doesn’t want to call it a stench, that wet mud smell. Diarrhea mixed with smoke from makeshift outdoor kitchens, where people cook with charcoal between tents.

Sinke hears stories of women who have been raped. Civilians not only accidentally end up in the line of fire, they are also targeted. The women are treated in the clinics set up by Doctors Without Borders, and Sinke knows that they are not safe in the camps either.

The disease is everywhere. Because of the terrible hygiene and the lack of water, because everyone sleeps together in narrow tents. Cholera cases are on the rise, there is an outbreak of measles, and many other infectious diseases are emerging that could have been easily prevented if only enough vaccines were available.

Every day people die in the fields. And that number is also going up. Those corpses are buried together outside the camps, outside the hard lava bottom. The graveyard gets bigger and bigger.

What is currently happening in the Congo is what aid organizations call a ‘neglected crisis’. The need increases many times faster than the help. What Sinke says is backed up by UN envoy Bintou Keita, who testified before the UN Security Council last week about the humanitarian drama from which the world should no longer look away.

The misery is actually too great to describe, says Sinke. Disproportionate. It’s not life here. But no one they spoke to in the camps believes they will be able to return home anytime soon. No one trusts that the violence will subside anytime soon. “People don’t come back until they see peace.”

Also read:

What is happening in eastern Congo?

The violence in eastern Congo appears to be entering a new phase as the provincial capital of Goma is threatened by the sudden advance of the M23 rebel group. Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting these rebels.