Life as an elderly refugee in Democratic Republic of the Congo

Publié: 24 juin 2013 13:00 CET

By Nelly Tangua, Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

“I have no news of my wife,” says Pierre Mbinga Gbiani. “She went to visit her family in Bangui when the rebels arrived. I have not seen her since. I hope she is safe. My children helped me to escape by boat.”

The 86-year-old native of Vondo Tongba village in Central African Republic (CAR) is one of many elderly citizens who now call a sandbar on the shores of the Ubangi river home. Fleeing violence in CAR that culminated with the overthrow of the government in late March, thousands sought safety in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). With his wife no longer by his side, Gbiani sits under a makeshift shelter, so flimsy it is no match for the rain. His four daughters and one son spend the day fishing in the river, trying to find food to feed themselves. What they do find is not enough.

Nearby, Jean Gremokoya lives with his wife and 12 children. This frail octogenarian has swollen feet; his wife has had one arm amputated. They spend the nights under the stars, exposed to the changing weather, their shelter of branches and leaves providing inadequate coverage. They too struggle to find food and water. “My little son still takes a huge risk, crossing the river into Bangui, into our homeland,” says Henriette, Jean’s wife. “He goes to get me some clean water.”

Water is a scarce commodity among the refugee community. Parched with thirst, people are resorting to drinking river water, which has also become their latrine, and a watering hole for animals. Not surprisingly, cramps and diarrhoea are common. “I often have stomach pains,” says Veronique Yagbanzi, a widow who also fled.

There are few medical facilities nearby, and those that do exist lack the basics of a well stocked health clinic. People with poor health are not getting the attention they need. “One elderly man is suffering from the trauma he experienced of having to escape the uprising,” says one refugee. “One night, he ran away into the rain. We searched for the man and found him, but we do not know what will happen tomorrow.”

In response to the growing needs of this refugee population, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched an emergency appeal to support 15,000 refugees. Working through volunteers and staff at the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, health care will be one of the key interventions. Using boats to reach this extremely remote area, local Red Cross nurses will visit target communities on a regular basis to raise awareness about disease prevention and proper hygiene.

With 48 per cent of the population suffering from malaria, the Red Cross will also distribute mosquito nets, people suffering from malnutrition will be identified and provided treatment, access to safe water will be improved and latrines constructed.

Pierre Mbinga Gbiani also hopes to take advantage of the restoring family links services being provided by the Red Cross, so that although he may continue to sit under a makeshift shelter on the banks of the Ubangi river, he will again have his wife of many years by his side.