KANANGA, DRC - Fourteen-month-old Georgette is one of the smallest victims of a massive, complicated crisis that has for two years enveloped a region the size of Germany in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Her tiny limbs shake as her mother hands her to nurses at a roadside clinic in the town of Kananga. She is severely malnourished, nurses say, and weighs under seven kilograms (15 pounds), far less than an average child of 14 months.
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Her frail chest crackles with what nurses say is bronchitis. Seeking comfort, she sucks insistently on her mother’s breast, which is dry of milk, as 32-year-old Suzanne Lukaji says she too has had little to eat since she and her family fled their home last year, abandoning their crops, after local militia clashed with government forces. The family was forced to survive for six months on what it could forage in the wild.
This week, the top U.N. humanitarian official warned 13 million people need aid in Congo, including 2 million children already experiencing severe, acute malnutrition.
Conflict in Congo’s Kasai province has displaced more than a million people. The situation is just one facet of a growing humanitarian crisis in the country, with U.N. officials urging donors to heed their $1.7 billion aid request.
More than 150,000 children affected
In the past year, the U.N. children’s fund and other aid groups have treated more than 50,000 children in this lush, but impoverished, region of south-central Congo.
U.N. agencies have asked for an unprecedented $1.7 billion dollars for Congo, most of it for this region; but, they have received a tiny fraction of that amount from donors.
“We estimate 150,000 children were affected,” said Oscar Butragueno, UNICEF’s emergency coordinator in Kasai. “So it’s been very serious; a lot of people are still displaced, they cannot go back to their homes, they cannot go and do the planting season, they’re hungry, they’re in need and they’re desperate.”
Local health workers say they’ve never seen it this bad. And this region has never been well off. Even before the crisis, aid officials estimated more than half of the children in this region were chronically malnourished.
The conflict that started in 2016 between an armed militia and the Congolese army, both of which are accused of committing heinous crimes, has pushed an already vulnerable population over the edge, locals say.
“If the international community brings us some support, it would make us happy and be a good help,” said local nurse Marie Louise Misenga, as dozens of mothers thronged the UNICEF-run clinic where she works.
Rations are just the start
At a World Food Program distribution site in the remote village of Tshikula, residents scrambled for meager rations. Women squabbled over handfuls of salt, liters of oil, and bags of beans and maize meal as hundreds of locals waited in the hot sun for their turn.
The rations may save lives, but local schoolteacher Jean-Pierre Ngalamulume says everyone is suffering.
“With students in a state of weakness, we are teaching them, but it’s hard for them to follow,” he said. “Even the teachers aren’t in the mood to teach because they have empty stomachs.”
UNICEF warns that as many as 400,000 children under the age of 5 could die this year from acute malnutrition unless the agency gets the funds and the access to help.
It’s a difficult number to imagine. But for many of the mothers who lined up patiently to have their babies seen and treated at a UNICEF-run clinic, those numbers mean little. What matters, they say, are nine-month-old Kabongo, 19-month-old Francois and 14-month-old Georgette.
Their stick-thin limbs and distended bellies can be treated, nurses and aid workers say, but their future is uncertain if the violence flares up again.