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Humanitarian Crisis in the DRC: Interview with Patrícia Soares

The HSC interviewed Patrícia Soares, a humanitarian worker who served in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Patrícia is now continuing her work in The Hague, Netherlands, where the interview took place. 

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been under an unsettling humanitarian crisis with no prospect of escape from its legacy of political corruption, civil strife and massive displacement for quite some time now: from Mobutu Sese Seko’s 32 yearlong authoritarian regime, to the successful coup d’état he suffered in 1997, up to the present Kabila era (father Laurent and son Joseph) with its domestic rebel militias and foreign opponents. This unstable background explains the DRC’s life expectancy at birth of 50 years old, much lower than the 56.8 years average of Sub-Saharan Africa. Preventable diseases such as pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, and extreme malnutrition plague this fragile society marred by humanitarian crises and a general lack of security or basic living conditions (i.e. rise of a sexual violence epidemic). As of July 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported 493 million refugees have spilled to neighbouring nations (namely Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania), while another 2.7 million are currently internally displaced due to continued armed conflict.

The Human Security Centre had the privilege of interviewing Patrícia Soares, a former humanitarian worker who left the DRC in December 2014 after living there for two years. She gave us a first-hand account of the human rights situation and daily life in this country, one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries and stage to the deadliest civil war in modern African history.

FIRSTLY, HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE LIFE IN A WAR-TORN COUNTRY?

Life in Kinshasha

Personally, it was very different from what you are used to. I was first stationed in Kinshasa and then moved to the East. In Kinshasa, while you also have many of the nice things you find here, be it restaurants, swimming pools or concerts, the main issue is that you are very limited in your freedom. I never walked alone on the streets – you are strongly advised not to, even only 10 metres. It’s quite unsafe, with an exacerbated urban violence. When we talk about urban violence here in the West you may think of someone robbing you and threatening you at knife or gun point, but there it’s cutting your limbs, seriously beating you up or killing you. So you are definitely very limited. It was not unbearable but rather uncomfortable and it can drive you a little crazy, at least in the beginning when you have always been free to go everywhere.

Life in East DRC 

Where I was based later, in South Kivu, was a different context. The type of insecurity was also different: you still had the ‘urban violence’ but also the ongoing armed conflict, which naturally averts you from doing many things. If you are a white person – a muzungu, as they say – sometimes people can be suspicious and try to take advantage of you. My feeling is that sometimes they identify the muzungu with the former colonialists or the like – this is definitely not everyone but, still, you never know so you are advised to refrain from doing certain things. Another issue is the lacking levels of hygiene and health services. I personally never caught malaria or one of the major fevers, but I did catch amoeba, for example, which wasn’t diagnosed with straight away so it got worse before it eventually got better.

It was challenging to live in South Kivu. I didn’t have running water or electricity and it was hard to find good food so I often crossed the border to Burundi to buy food. It wasn’t that there wasn’t food in my town of Uvira, but it was food you can’t trust. For example, if you want to buy fish, the fish would be in the middle of the road and obviously you don’t feel comfortable ingesting it. I wouldn’t eat meat because I just didn’t think it was safe either and vegetables usually are not so good. Which is why on the weekends, when I could, I would cross to Burundi to get food. This was quite easy considering I was only about 10km from the border and I was lucky enough to have a car at the time. Still on a personal perspective, communications were really bad. It was very difficult to speak to family and keep in touch with this part of the world, yet, also in Burundi, you would find a way.

In relation to my professional life, in Kinshasa I had more office work, but when I moved to the East, to South Kivu I had a completely different experience. I was a Human Rights officer investigating serious human rights violations. Therefore, I got to be in direct contact with the people, I had the privilege of taking a helicopter or driving to the middle of nowhere and see amazing places tourists cannot. This made me realize very clearly how Congo is as much a blessed country as it is a doomed country. 

On the one hand, Congo is blessed because it is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen, it is immensely wealthy in terms of natural resources – in fact, if I’m not wrong, the natural resources of Congo would be enough to feed the entire African population. On the other hand, it is doomed because it lives in disaster. The population is extremely poor, and what is more drastic to me is that I don’t believe Congo’s children have a future. You look at these kids on the streets and they don’t have anything to eat, they don’t go to school – the question is what chance do they have? How can their lives be better? How can the DRC be better? Of course I’m not blaming them. It is a structural, social and political problem – these families have no way of supporting the children, and the children themselves have no alternative. If they want to live better and have food on the table, they usually feel compelled to resort to crime or even to join an armed group. It is also important to bear in mind that people do not benefit from social assistance, meaning children grow up to bring money to the household and support the elders. Very little chances are given this context.

I consider Congo to have a big problem right now: the extremely limited rule of law. For example, every so often governmental officials are not paid, or paid very little, which means their motivation to work and protect the locals. In this sense, if they are threatened or persecuted by an armed group, they lack the incentive to fight back, because a relocation system to protect them does not exist  exists in case you are being persecuted exists; there is no witness protection program or anything that would curtail violence or criminals and  ensure a safe environment. Regarding security forces, you can find a clean, well-dressed and well-equipped minority in Kinshasa. However if you go to the East and take a look at the large majority you see the exact opposite. They are not only ill-equipped and badly trained, but sometimes aren’t paid for months, meaning they themselves start robbing from the population. I honestly don’t know what is done to the money because it is clearly not invested in this realm. Ultimately, when you want to promote the rule of law, you have this major problem since the infrastructures of the country are completely down.

WHAT CAN BE SAID ABOUT THE NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES AND HOW THAT HOSTILE DYNAMIC TRANSLATES INTO DAILY LIFE?

In my opinion, the DRC’s most problematic neighbouring relationship is definitely with Rwanda. We must remember that Rwandans initially entered Congo when the war started to prevent the Hutus based there from reorganising and attacking again, but then they remained to support the fall of Mobutu. Moreover, you also have the M23 and the allegations, sustained by the United Nations, that Rwanda was somehow supporting this military group in their devastation of Congo and its populations. Ntaganda, one of the leaders of the movement, is now being prosecuted at the ICC. So, naturally, a clear open antagonism was raised between the two countries. If you ask a Congolese about Rwanda, they’ll tell you the reason why the Rwandans so desperately want to have a powerful hand in Congo is its abundant natural resources. After all, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (DFLR) are still present in Eastern Congo. However if you talk to a Rwandan official, they will profusely deny this. In the very recent and serious case of the M23, for instance, you would hear Congolese politicians talking about Rwanda’s actions and possible direct involvement, and the Congolese people resenting this antagonism. They’ll tell you ‘Rwandans want our country’, or statements of the like, and sometimes you actually have violence towards the Rwandans or the Congolese Tutsis because of these ethnic tensions and customary power or land issues I was talking about before, and vice-versa.

Congo has a lot of Congolese Tutsis and in South Kivu there was a big ethnic conflict between them and the ethnic Congolese, leading to massacres, burning people, killing children and babies. I worked in one of these cases and had to go to the slaughtered village. The first day we tried to go the locals attacked our car by surrounding it, throwing stones, hitting it with sticks and pushing the car to try and turn it around. There were some threats and it was pretty scary.  For three days we couldn’t enter the village because they barricaded the roads yet, after some efforts, advocacy and diplomacy, they let us in and we managed to work. What’s interesting is that the concept of diplomacy applied there is very different from the more bureaucratic one here: in the DRC, it relies more on friendly and honest smiles, or showing people that you are indeed trying to help. It is a question of feelings and either they believe you and let you go, or they don’t. 

There were also others international armed groups in the area where I lived:  one that is originally Ugandan, The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), and another originally from Burundi, the ex-FNL. Some Burundians are also associated with the Tutsi due to a certain ethnic proximity so conflicts are instigated, given they aren’t accepted by the locals as being Congolese. This is, to a significant extent, a customary power struggle of who should control and own this area.

THE UNITED NATIONS AND THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY IN GENERAL HAVE TRIED TO BE ON TOP OF THIS SITUATION SINCE THE BEGINNING. THE UN AND THE ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY (OAU) JOINTLY GUARANTEED THE ONGOING MONUSCO PEACEKEEPING MISSION. WHAT CAN YOU SAY REGARDING THESE INTERNATIONAL EFFORTS?

I honestly feel there is nothing the UN, the African Union, or the international community can do if these efforts don’t lead to a reorganisation from the inside. You must have this basic condition first, though that is more difficult because even if you give personnel, money or humanitarian aid, you certainly cannot force an independent and sovereign government to apply this aid in a certain manner. They will always tell you ‘’I was elected by the people so you can’t force anything upon me’’. This is the problem. Once, I met a military officer from the EU mission and he told me it would be very easy to end the conflict– one “could simply send Canadian, Belgian and French officers, some drones and so on and very easily they would be able to stop this conflict, just like the FIB [United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, deployed in 2013] did”, he said. Within two months, the FIB basically neutralised the M23. So this officer was telling me that, sure, this is possible, yet the problem is that, to a certain extent, there aren’t that many states willing to send forces to Congo’s already decades-long conflict.

Besides, the economic interests also on the table – a taboo topic – prevent certain decisions from being made. Someone could say that maybe Kabila doesn’t take some actions because if he had a stable and peaceful country, it would be difficult to keep things as they are. If you have a peaceful country, you’ll consequently have people that feel free to demand rights and take notice of things happening in Congo that should not be happening – such as  a Congolese top figure shopping in the Champs Elysées while people back home die from starvation, have no access to healthcare or education, and see daily raped go unpunished. In this sense, a small group of people can take benefit from a country that isn’t under control, from a chaotic order.

An added problem is that the Congolese people have been overall traumatized and lived in fear for so long that they lack this sense of shared identity or self-belief that would enable them to turn things around. I can’t imagine the Congolese today having the motivation to topple this government (and I am not incentivizing a coup d’état). I don’t know what will happen with this issue of Kabila attempting to extend the constitutional mandate because I’m not sure the people have the strength to force him to do what is right, which is basically what the law dictates.

CAN THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY DO MORE? HAVE THEY FAILED THE DRC?

There is one main action the international community can do: monitor the application of the funds it provides in terms of humanitarian aid, financial aid, etc. I am aware they already do it, however it needs to be more stringent and efficient, they need to have better knowledge of where the money is applied. In the end, the government needs and uses the money, yet maybe only apply 70% or 50% of it, while the remainder is kept unknown to the population. Of course we can’t be naïve. What can we do if they don’t use the money correctly? Applying sanctions mandated by the Security Council, which is scarcely in agreement? And what is the alternative – not donating money? This can’t be because Congo is a country that still heavily depends on international aid; so if you cut international aid, many bad things would certainly happen.

DO YOU FEEL, THEN, AS IF THE SITUATION IS STUCK?

I think it is stuck for now. The infrastructures and political reality of the country are such that something has to change, but I don’t know what or how. It is so complicated. Again, there is something in the mentality of the people that has to change, which is only possible with a new generation that is educated and is given opportunities. For instance, I think the Congolese nowadays rely too much on international aid and on foreigners. They are always expecting you to provide money or something else. If you try to sensitise people on how ‘’you need to do something about this or that because it is not okay and needs to be fought’’, one of the first thing they’ll answer is ‘’but we need your help’’. There is always a belief that they cannot do it by themselves.

I remember once I was visiting a jail and met three detainees who hadn’t been fed in three days. I approached the guards and told them this can’t be, “you can’t have them detained and not fed because they are your responsibility; you are the State and can’t do this, this is a clear human rights abuse”. He answered by saying he didn’t have food to give them, to which I said that if you don’t have food to provide, you can’t keep them here or else they will starve. Given this, he then promptly declared they were my responsibility as I was a humanitarian worker, and not theirs. Basically, in their mind, it isn’t their responsibility, but that of the international community to take care of everything the State does not. The international community is not only a donor but rather a replacement of a failed State apparatus.

Obviously it is undeniable that the Congolese live in very bad conditions as a result of the lasting conflict. Yet if you think of Burundi, another country severely affected by civil war years ago, you now find it so much more developed – you can walk on the street! Same in Uganda, where I was able to take a motorcycle by myself. This is impossible in Congo, except for very short distances during the day, and even then it’s unadvised. You have a political problem in DRC, without a question; however you also have a problem of mentality, self-pride and self-belief, which is undoubtedly the result of years of oppression, poverty, and abuse. And this will not change in this generation.

AFTER YOUR STAY IN THE DRC, WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IS TO COME FOR THIS COUNTRY? 

That is the million dollar question! I don’t think it will change in the next generation, because I do believe you need to give opportunities to the children of today so they can make a difference tomorrow. And right now they don’t have this chance. It’s a country where I don’t see change happening in the next generation, only because I don’t believe the current young generation is given the opportunity to do better. As of now, they are doomed. When you see 10 or 12 year old kids on the street with nothing to eat… they will steal or rob to find food by other means. Therefore I see this possible change as taking at least more than one generation. Besides, there is an obvious political problem, which you can see right now with the attempt to extend the Constitutional Mandate and the many surrounding allegations of corruption and embezzlement. This is why in Kinshasa you find people spending 12 000$ in one night of drinks (local reports), but then travel across the country, or even in Kinshasa, and find absolute poverty. I don’t know what can be of this country.

There are members of the security forces that are corrupt, kill and steal. Of course my background being in human rights I am the first to say this must be stopped as it is unacceptable. But, take a look, you have families of nine or ten children; the father and provider is a military and goes unpaid for months – so what are you to do? You will rob and extort. Add some drugs and alcohol to the mix and it’s a disaster. It’s not an excuse, but one must realise where this misconduct comes from. They have no other means of subsistence. To give a concrete example, when I arrived in Kinshasa they told me that a police officer was paid little more than 50 dollars per month, whereas I paid 800 dollars for my tiny, minuscule cockroach-filled one-room apartment in that same city! So you see, how can you feed you family under that salary? Or, providing you manage to buy the food, how can you send your children to school? In daily life, I was always paying the police officers: you go to the supermarket and three police officers approach you to park your car and then ask for money. We can’t underestimate how much this people struggles to get through – this disastrous situation in Congo doesn’t come from nowhere and we must grasp that to understand the people. Not the politicians, but the people, the grassroots of Congo.

About Barbara Matias

Bárbara Matias is a Research Assistant in the Human Rights and Conflict Resolution research division. Her research interests include the enforcement of human rights, gender issues in the developing world, transatlantic relations and the Middle East.