30.07.09 15:14 Age: 3 yrs

Congolese churches doing "an enormous job" - Interview with Anna Muinonen


Anna Muinonen with children at Nzulo Camp
© Fredrick Nzwili/WCC 
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By Fredrick Nzwili (*)


Anna Muinonen is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) programme coordinator for FinnChurchAid, a member of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International providing emergency relief to victims of the long running conflict in the Central African country.


In the mineral-rich DRC, fighting has displaced tens of thousands of people since 1998. Although a peace agreement in 2003 brought a semblance of peace to some areas, with displaced people returning to their homes, South and North Kivu provinces in the eastern DRC remain volatile.


From 9 to 11 July, an international ecumenical team visited Bukavu and Goma, the capital cities of South and North Kivu respectively. The group, along with four others travelling to different parts of the country, came to the DRC as "Living Letters" on behalf of the World Council of Churches (WCC), in order to listen, learn and show solidarity with the Congolese churches.


Bukavu at the southern tip of Lake Kivu and Goma on its northern shore are the bases for the humanitarian agencies' relief efforts in the eastern DRC.


In the cities, everything looks normal. The markets are full of bananas, tomatoes and a variety of fruit. Women are carrying baskets on their heads, trading. Baskets full of fish and even meat are on sale. Sometimes traffic jams form on the ragged roads.


But this peaceful picture is contrasted by the presence of UN soldiers in their blue helmets. It indicates that all is not well here.


Meeting the Living Letters delegation at the Nzulo Camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Goma, Anna Muinonen answered some questions on the relief work of ACT International.


How does Action by Churches Together respond to the needs of people in the eastern DRC who have been caught up in conflict for all these years?


The ACT forum is working to assist the victims of diverse wars in the DRC. Last November we elaborated an emergency appeal to assist the people who had fled the latest fighting in North Kivu in October and November. We are currently working on the implementation of this emergency appeal. For example, here [in Nzulo Camp], one ACT member, Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), has set up a water and sanitation project. Hygienic conditions in IDP camps are really terrible regarding the number of people staying here and the initial lack of latrines, the lack of potable water. So NCA established water supply system here and has helped the people build latrines. Other ACT members are collaborating in providing assistance in different areas of North Kivu.


The focus is on agricultural activities, distributing seeds for both displaced people and their host communities, because food assistance only lasts for a few weeks, maximum a few months. After that, the people are left with nothing. So we are helping them cultivate their own food and gain a minimum of self-sufficiency.


How can displaced people do agriculture when they live in camps?


Actually, most of the displaced people in Congo are housed in host families, not in IDP sites – this actually is the last option for people, usually. Most of the times when people have to flee the conflicts, they try to flee to areas where they have either some – even distant – family members or members of the same churches. The hospitality of these host families is really phenomenal. Some people house even five families in their tiny little home.


In these situations, we ACT members help the people negotiate with the local authorities or local churches to give them a piece of land, so that they together with the host communities can at least cultivate some agricultural crops. Usually almost all the production is used as food, but sometimes a little part of it can be sold and the income used for buying other necessities.


What challenges do you face in your work?


In this area, unfortunately the conflict is not over. The same people who flee and after a few months return to their areas of origin, have to flee again, usually even several times a year. So it is really difficult to try help people stabilize and rebuild their lives. Usually when they go back to their home areas they find their houses looted, their fields destroyed, and all their agricultural tools either stolen or broken. ACT members are trying to help the returnees to restart their lives again, but the continuing conflict is the main challenge.


In some areas, the ACT partners also work in extremely dangerous areas. For example, the South Lubero area in the middle of North Kivu is a very dangerous area at the moment. There are daily looting raids to local villages, there are almost daily attacks on vehicles along the roads.


So one of the challenges is as well that we cannot go to certain places where people desperately need help but the humanitarian access is restricted because of the insecurity.


Do you think there are still people trapped in the conflict and not being reached by your efforts?


Absolutely – either because they had to flee to areas that are even further from where most humanitarian agencies work, or due to logistical constraints because the road infrastructure in the DRC is almost non-existent. Some of the roads that exist are too dangerous because of attacks by armed groups and bandits. So yes, there are some areas where people are trapped and remain with hardly any assistance.


Why do you think the conflict has continued for so long?


I think the conflict in the DRC is one of the most complicated conflicts. It has been characterized as a forgotten emergency, partly maybe due to the fact that it is so difficult to understand. It is difficult to find the roots causes, and to tackle them. When the conflict is not even among the population itself, it is difficult to engage in peace and reconciliation work. There is very little you can do at the level of civil society because it is not the civilians who are fighting one another.


There are several armed groups, local and foreign. Also the rich natural resources of the Congo have turned out to be rather a curse for the country, since diverse economic interests keep up the functioning of these militias.


What is the impact of relief work by the churches?


We in the ACT network try to do what is possible with the resources that we have. Moreover, the Congolese churches, regardless of whether they are part of the ACT forum or not, are doing an enormous job. It is basically the churches that have kept up the educational system and the health care system in the eastern DRC during all these years of conflict.


Churches are everywhere. I was talking about these areas where people are trapped, where no humanitarian agency can go because of security and logistical constraints, but churches are there. If there is no school in a certain village, churches are usually the ones who will organize themselves to provide at least a minimum of education for the children. Churches are also keeping up quite a number of health centres and hospitals.


In one word, how you describe the conflict in the DRC?


I would say this is the very definition of a complex humanitarian emergency.


(*) Fredrick Nzwili is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI).



Audio files: Listen to Anna Muinonen's comments on


More stories and photos from the Living Letters visit to the DRC

WCC member churches in the DRC


Relief efforts of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International