Shabunda: the ‘forgotten Kosovo’
by Charles Mampasu July 2002

For the international relief community, the DRC’s complex and brutal four-year war has become another of the world’s neglected emergencies. Humanitarian need is desperate, but insecurity and distance mean that large areas of the conflict are isolated from any relief.

The DRC is in the grip of some nine individual conflicts – internal, international and internationalised – among six national armies and 21 irregular groups. More than 2.5 million people have died, and this only in areas where NGOs are based. Isolated and cut-off regions are forgotten, and the poverty and fear in which their people live have not been addressed by donors and most relief agencies alike. Currently, only one international NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is active in Shabunda.

The extent of the crisis in Shabunda

The Shabunda region is particularly isolated. It is the largest territory in South Kivu province, covering more than 25,000 square kilometres, and home to over a million people. It is in the extreme east of DRC; the administrative centre, Shabunda, is nearly 3,000km from the capital, Kinshasa. This isolation is compounded by the lack of communications. There are no telephones, no postal services and no radio. Only landing strips keep the territory from being completely cut off. Conflict in Shabunda is widespread, and depredation by armed groups common. Hundreds of people have been killed, and many exist in a climate of fear and acute insecurity. Many have taken refuge in jungle areas, or in towns where relief agencies have a presence, like Bukavu, Kalima and Kindu. Others have resigned themselves to these conditions, and joined armed bands.

Once the granary of Kivu, Shabunda today faces hunger and widespread malnutrition. Traditional subsistence agriculture is at a standstill, livestock rearing has been decimated and fisheries have been destroyed. People are living off tubers and manioc leaves, which grow wild along the roads. Signs of marasmus and Kwashiorkor are everywhere, and malnourished women are unable to breastfeed their children properly. Facilities for processing agricultural products, such as palm nuts and rice, have been destroyed, and jobs are largely non-existent. Although Shabunda is extremely rich in mineral resources, their exploitation is monopolised by the Great Lakes Mining Company, an operation set up by one of the area’s rebel groups.

Rates of morbidity and mortality have rapidly increased; four out of five children die before they reach five years of age. There is very limited access to primary health care. The only referral hospital in Shabunda is in ruins. A health centre, run by Catholic nuns, serves a population of some 35,000, and cannot hope to meet demand. Five or six patients share treatment courses meant for one, and the single doctor is the only one in the territory. The territory’s 50 or so dispensaries cater for a population of 1.5m – one for every 30,000 or so people. Only the Shabunda facility has anything like adequate supplies. Illnesses that had been eradicated, such as smallpox, chickenpox and measles, have reappeared. Meanwhile, widespread rape of women and young children by armed groups has led to high rates of HIV infection. What schools exist are without equipment, and have little prospect of getting any. Over 95% of children no longer have access to any education at all. In the face of this disaster, new local groups have proliferated: associations of young Christians, women, widows, parents of school-age children, small planters, fish farmers and brick-makers.

Why has Shabunda been forgotten?

Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Shabunda, how has it remained unknown to international relief agencies? The answer lies partly in the fact that those who wield power in the territory wish it to remain unknown because this allows them to continue to exploit the territory’s mineral wealth in secret. Second, high levels of insecurity make any relief work dangerous; ASCDES, for instance, has moved its coordinating office out of the territory. Insecurity has also reportedly reduced access for MSF. Third, unlike Kosovo, the DRC in general is regarded by many Western governments and donors as an overwhelmingly big and complicated crisis, of little direct strategic interest or threat.

What needs to be done

In the face of this disaster, well-planned emergency aid could play a triple role. It could provide a space for people to commit themselves to a range of peace initiatives; supply the means for local and international aid agencies to set up a forum for cooperation; and be a catalyst for raising financial and material resources to provide immediate relief and promote sustainable development. Given the depth of need, this work would need to proceed in stages.

First stage:

  • strengthen the capacity of local civil society to publicise humanitarian disasters, through technical training and technical, financial and logistical support;
  • organise an inclusive awareness-raising meeting for the benefit of both the authorities and the beneficiaries;
  • focus on the most vulnerable; and
  • make the beneficiaries aware of the need to repair the roads and landing strips to allow access to relief supplies.

Second stage:

  • draw up the best possible inclusive intervention policy, together with beneficiaries, local organisations and local authorities; and
  • set priorities together.

Third stage:

  • identify and set up centres where humanitarian interventions can be based.

Any intervention will also need to identify main spheres of activity.

Restoration of the infrastructure (roads and landing strips, health centres and schools):

  • identify village groups of rehabilitation volunteers;
  • distribute equipment and materials: spades, wheelbarrows, pickaxes, saws, axes and machetes;
  • provide metal sheeting, nails, saws, planes and masonry tools; and
  • train education staff in setting up income-generating projects to pay teachers and help in the running of schools.

Health and nutrition:

  • supply essential drugs and medical materials;
  • provide the logistics for dispatching these products to existing services;
  • set up feeding centres, and aid-distribution centres;
  • train staff in resource management;
  • set up community village pharmacies;
  • distribute agricultural tools to farming and fish-breeding groups;
  • rebuild livestock; and
  • provide technical training to farming groups.

Charles Mampasu is the Coordinator of the Shabunda organisation ASCDES (Actions Solidarités Chrétiennes pour le Développement Economique et Social). His e-mail is

References and further reading

John Prendergast, Crisis and Hope in Africa (London, IAG-COG, 1996).

Charles Mampasu, Informations sur l’ONG ‘Actions Solidarités Chrétiennes pour le Développement Economique et Social’ en Sigle, ASCDES, July 2001.

ASCDES, Rapport des Quelques Infrastructures Recensées, 26 July 2001.

Simon Fisher, Working with Conflict: Skills and Strategies for Action (London: Zed Books, 2000).