In Congo, Ebola Is Just One More Thing To Worry About

Sep 10, 2019

Marie Gorette piled the broken glass carefully in a corner behind her house.

She had put it on top of a white curtain that was so soaked with blood, it had turned red.

Overnight, armed men had ransacked through her house. They took the TV; they broke the windows and they shot two of Gorette's sons, both of whom are recovering in the hospital.

She picks through the glass. She looks exasperated.

"We think it's our own soldiers who are doing this, because when they come, they speak Lingala and operate calmly without any fear," she says. Lingala, which is not commonly spoken in Eastern Congo, is used by the Congolese armed forces.

Her neighborhood is in Goma, a city of 2 million, is called the Kasika quarter and it's at the center of Ebola outbreak. Coming to the neighborhood gives Ebola responders pause. The area is densely populated with no running water, poor sanitation and no flush toilets.

But one of her neighbors, Josias Luhemba, says the residents are more worried about the violence than the virus.

"With Ebola we know how to protect ourselves," he says.

The insecurity in this part of Congo, along with the government's inability to provide the most basic of services, have made people suspicious of efforts to ward off the virus – and fueled conspiracy theories about the Ebola crisis.

The kind of attack that Gorette experienced happens all the time in this neighborhood. Some neighbors say the thieves don't even bother to take off their military uniforms. So this time they decided to block the streets with boulders. Police usually move in with teargas when this happens. But not this time. It meant no one — not police, not military, not even the Ebola response teams — could move around freely.

Luhemba says what he doesn't understand is why the international community is pouring hundreds of millions into the Ebola response, when people have been dying in this region for decades.

"They should give millions of dollars so that they can put an end to the violence," he says.

But when militias kill civilians, no one cares, he says. When their own government attacks them, no one cares. But they are supposed to believe the government and international community want to save them from some virus this part of Congo had never seen before?

"We think that maybe it's a conspiracy of the international community," he says. "They want to massacre people thinking they will be scared and flee and leave the lands for others."

Machetes And Malaria

Fidel Bafilemba has an office in the middle of downtown Goma. It's in a modern building, up a few flights of stairs.

Bafilemba used work for a big NGO that helped build basic infrastructure but he grew disillusioned because of how little work got done. He quit and is now trying to open the first public library in all of Congo.

He points toward one of the restrooms. In this city of 2 million people, in this nice, modern building, there is no running water.

"This is a failed state," he says.

The Congolese, he says, have been betrayed time and again. During colonial times, Belgium's King Leopold treated Congo as his personal property. He treated Congolese as slaves and committed heinous human rights abuses. In the late '90s, this part of Congo was the epicenter of what is known as Africa's World War. Fueled by foreign powers, it left an estimated 5.4 million people dead.

And now, a country brimming with natural resources is being fleeced not just by its own government but by armed groups with ties to neighboring countries.

Bafilemba says he knows that Ebola is real. But how can anyone blame the Congolese for making up conspiracy theories that this is just one more way the powerful are looking to annihilate them?

"What do you want when you are living a world, in a country with the largest [United Nations] peacekeeping mission for 20 years and all the while you have over 130 armed groups," he says.

Goma, he adds, is home to more than 250 international aid agencies. The U.N. peacekeepers fly around in attack helicopters and ride on the back of brand new trucks with automatic weapons. Yet, militias are still hacking people with machetes. And malaria – a preventable and curable disease – is still the top cause of death in Congo killing tens of thousands each year.

What Helps

David Gressly is the newly appointed U.N. Emergency Ebola Response Coordinator in the Ebola-affected areas of Congo.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

"Sometimes it's so surprising to me that we're still alive," Bafilemba says.

When you present David Gressly, who used to run the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo and who was recently appointed to coordinate the Ebola response for the U.N., with the anger and accusations of neglect, he immediately blames the government saying they are "primarily responsible" for fixing many of the country's problems.

But, he says, he gets it. The frustration with the violence and the government and the U.N.'s seeming inability to stop it is understandable. He says many times, it is the protests against the militia attacks that have hindered the response against Ebola in Eastern DRC.

He says that when security forces take action against the armed militias, the situation stabilizes and health workers are able to work more freely.

"It gets better immediately," he says. "So it's not something that can't be dealt with but it has to be dealt with real results."

He says when he goes out into the field and talks to people, they don't ask for an Ebola response, or food, or jobs. The thing they yearn for most is peace.

"You see it on the ground: People are tired; civilians are tired. The army is tired of fighting and dying; the armed groups are tired of the same," he says. "And I think there is an opportunity when you have that level of fatigue of conflict to actually bring it to closure."

Goma University has become a symbol of decline for the country. Deep cracks run through the crumbling walls, bullet holes are clearly visible, most windows are shattered. And when it rains, water drips through the ceiling.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

Broken windows, deferred dreams

One of the most striking sights of Goma is the Goma University building.

It's four stories, a rectangular cement building with with windows across the entire facade. But almost every single glass is broken. It's a reminder of the many violent showdowns between students and security forces over everything from a contested presidential election last year to the lack of electricity and working toilets. It's a reminder of how hard life is out here.

Eunice Fundi Sulayabo, 19, is a medical student at Goma University.
Samantha Reinders for NPR

Up front, dozens of students are waiting to sit for exams. Eunice Fundi Sulayabo is studying medicine. She says the confrontations between security forces and students have often meant they have to move around.

In other places, students come to college and they can block out the outside world to focus on their studies.

"It is quite impossible here," she says, "to go to the university and study without thinking about problems of politics and security, Ebola or how you're going to make ends meet."

Samuel Swedi is studying right next to her. Like all the other students, he doesn't have a textbook — just whatever he has hand-copied into a notebook.

He is studying electrical engineering, but, he says, his professors are still teaching the same material they were taught in school decades ago.

But there is a bigger problem here, he says.

"Usually people study the things that are not their dreams," he says.

Students pick careers that will feed them, he says. And all anyone wants — all he wants — is the freedom, the peace, to follow their dreams.

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