The Humanitarian Catastrophe You’re Still Not Hearing About

An update on refugees who fled a volcanic eruption in Congo.

Last week, I told you about a friend of mine named Clare Campbell from Washington State. She coincidentally arrived in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo just five days after Mount Nyiragongo erupted near the city of Goma. Clare runs a nonprofit called Congo Threads, and has been in the town of Minova since her arrival helping the thousands of refugees—mostly women and children—who fled there during the immediate crisis.

Since I wrote about her efforts, you’ve all donated thousands of dollars to help her feed, clothe and provide soap and menstrual pads to women in dire need. I want to update you on what she’s been doing and seeing there.

Clare has heard that about 10,000 refugees from Goma came to Minova in particular. Overall, about 245,000 people who fled Goma remained displaced in nearby towns and villages as of June 8, according to a survey by the International Organization for Migration, Reuters reported.

And beyond the basic problem of finding housing for these thousands of people—many of whom have been sleeping on the street for weeks—food has been in seriously short supply. A humanitarian disaster of this scale presents unending challenges in providing necessities to those in need, but in a place like Congo, there are not just challenges to overcome: There are barriers to climb that may as well be sheer-faced walls.

Even before this latest crisis, Congolese people were facing extreme food insecurity. Only two days before the volcano erupted, CARE, an international humanitarian organization, said that nearly seven million people in Congo “are now one step away from famine levels of food insecurity, while 27.3 million are facing acute levels of hunger or higher.”

The group added that, “for perspective, that number is greater than the entire population of New York State.”

On Tuesday, Clare discovered that a small encampment had been erected by the UN Refugee Agency in the center of town six days prior. A couple hundred children and 174 adults have been living there, she said.

As of June 2, the World Food Program said it had distributed 10-day rations of flour, pulses, oil and salt to approximately 43,000 volcano-displaced people in the towns of Sake, Minova and Rutshuru. But in Minova, Clare said, people were hungry—the donations had run out. Or, it seems, they may have been stolen.

On Sunday, a priest scolded anyone in his congregation who may have taken or bought food that had been allocated for the refugees, telling them to return it and apologize. But nearly everybody is hungry in Congo; it feels hard to be upset by this.

With what little food there has been in Minova, women refugees have been asking neighbors to use their kitchens to cook the WFP donations.

On Tuesday morning, Clare’s colleague Herman Chirihambali learned that a boat ferrying a large amount of food from Rwanda to Minova across Lake Kivu overturned. A journalist told her that evening that everyone on board had been rescued by local fisherman, but the much-needed supplies were gone.

Clare and Herman went to the camp in the center of town to break the news. They also gave each adult $5 to buy something to eat until more supplies could come in by boat.

Authorities in Goma have authorized those who fled the city to begin returning, but those in Minova are not scheduled to begin doing so until Tuesday. And no one seems to know how they’re supposed to get back there— with what vehicles or boats?—or whether they’ll have anywhere to live when they do.

A woman named Francine Byenda told the France-based Africa News that her house in Goma was one of at the thousands of homes destroyed by the lava flow. “They are asking us to go back,” she said. “I don’t have anywhere to go back to. I wonder where I should go back to with the children—I don’t have an answer.”

Clare wrote me at 7 a.m. Central African Time last week to say that it was a beautiful morning, and she was sitting having coffee with a couple of women who’d come to her hotel compound. One of them, Joy, had helped her with a food distribution four days earlier.

Joy, 23, arrived in Minova with her son Gift, as well as a pregnant friend and three children who needed help. Her husband, she said, died on their exodus from Goma, although I don’t know details.

Clare has been working nonstop to help the refugees since arriving in Minova on May 27. Later in the day on Friday, she would be doing another food distribution and had hired men and boys to deliver items on chukudus, homemade two-wheeled wooden scooters.

But no matter how much she does, Clare said, she can never do enough.

“The word has been out for days about the muzungu [white woman] who helps people,” she said.

But, she added, “It’s just not possible to help everyone, I tell them through French/Swahili/English and mime.”

You can still donate to Clare’s work here. I’d also recommend supporting one of my favorite women’s groups in DRC: Maman Shujaa, or “Hero Women Rising.” They are providing reusable menstrual pads and other necessities to the Goma refugees who fled to the city of Bukavu.

This piece originally appeared in Chills, the Substack edited by Wolfe.

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Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe, an award-winning journalist, runs Chills, a Substack newsletter.