Congo arms depot blast victims crowd shelter sites in Brazzaville

News Stories, 12 March 2012

© UNHCR/C.Schmitt
Homeless people in Brazzaville seek shade under makeshift shelters in Nkombo market.

BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of the Congo, March 12 (UNHCR) Chantal is desperate for shelter. The 43-year-old was among an estimated 14,000 people left homeless and in urgent need of assistance when an arms depot exploded on March 4 in an eastern district of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of Congo.

"I don't even have a piece of plastic sheeting to create some shade," the mother of five told UNHCR in the city's Nkombo covered market as she watched a family build a makeshift shelter with precious plastic sheeting. "I've been here since Monday. I'm in the sun, I have no place to stay in the covered part of the market, I cannot even cook," she said. "I wait for the evening to come and the sun to sink before I can do anything, but it is very hard."

After receiving a request for support from the government, UNHCR has started helping the most vulnerable victims of the series of massive explosions, that left more than 200 people dead by official count. The homeless have been gathering in the Nkombo market and six other main sites. UNHCR will provide support for management of these sites and for registration of the displaced.

"The registration of IDPs [internally displaced people] is essential to manage the situation and provide assistance," said Paul Ndaitouroum, UNHCR's representative in Brazzaville. "It is also an important process to establish who are the most vulnerable people and provide support to them," he added.

UNHCR has brought in experts to help coordinate and manage sites where the displaced are living. The refugee agency has also distributed shelter and other emergency aid items, including plastic sheeting, mats, blankets, mosquito nets, soap and cooking utensils to more than 1,000 people. But Ndaitouroum said much more was needed.

Achille Kodo, a psychologist and UNHCR staff welfare officer, said many people would likely need counselling. "It is essential that the psycho-social aspect is taken into account," said Kodo. "The survivors are traumatized and need help," he stressed.

In the Nkombo covered market, the stalls have been converted into beds while the aisles are covered with mattresses, plastic buckets and mats. Aid organizations are using the offices to distribute emergency aid to some 2,000 homeless people in the market. Most have lost everything in the explosion.

Chantal recalled the day that changed her life. She was on her way by bus to Sunday church, "when I heard a big boom and saw smoke. We saw people running." She said taxis were carrying away the injured from the city's Mpila neighbourhood, where a fire at a military base had triggered the explosions.

"I went home to get my children. Our plot was destroyed and the roof of the house had caved in. I took my children and we fled," she said, adding: "Since then, I have been living here [Nkombo market] in the open. I only have two mattresses for the six of us."

The market where she earns a living by selling fish was completely destroyed. Her children's school is now a pile of rubble and the family have been relying on hand-outs from the Congolese authorities and humanitarian organizations.

Jean-Bosco, a soldier, has also been living in the Nkombo market since the blast, which killed his 11-year-old daughter as she washed the dishes in their home. "After the first explosion, the roof collapsed. I was outside, but my daughter was in the house. We could not recover her body."

He and his family, including a sick daughter and Jean-Bosco's disabled wife, were sleeping on the concrete floor. "We suffer," he said.

Other displaced people have gathered at churches, sports stadiums and in front of Brazzaville's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, where Sunday's service was disrupted by the blasts. The sites are crowded and there are no latrines or showers. On Saturday, people were still turning up to register as displaced and seek receive help.

Hospitals are also overcrowded. "We lack equipment to treat patients. Even drugs are lacking. Since yesterday, we are out of compresses, "said Chantal Kunga, a nurse of 47 years who volunteered to treat victims.

By Céline Schmitt in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Internally Displaced People

The internally displaced seek safety in other parts of their country, where they need help.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Congo's river refugees

More than 100,000 Congolese refugees have crossed the Oubangui River in search of safety in neighbouring Republic of the Congo since inter-ethnic violence erupted in their home areas late last year. They fled from Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo after Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults in October on ethnic Munzayas over fishing and farming rights in the Dongo area. The tensions have spread to other parts of the province.

The majority of the displaced are camping in public buildings and some 100 sites along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River, including with host communities. The massive influx is stretching the meagre resources of the impoverished and remote region. Help is urgently needed for both the refugees and the host communities.

The relief operation is logistically complex and expensive because the region can only be reached by plane or boat. However, few boats are available and most are in need of repair. Fuel is expensive and difficult to procure.

Congo's river refugees

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

During Sri Lanka's 20-year civil war more than 1 million people were uprooted from their homes or forced to flee, often repeatedly. Many found shelter in UNHCR-supported Open Relief Centers, in government welfare centers or with relatives and friends.

In February 2002, the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed a cease-fire accord and began a series of talks aimed at negotiating a lasting peace. By late 2003, more than 300,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their often destroyed towns and villages.

In the midst of these returns, UNHCR provided physical and legal protection to war affected civilians – along with financing a range of special projects to provide new temporary shelter, health and sanitation facilities, various community services, and quick and cheap income generation projects.

Sri Lanka: IDPs and Returnees

Uganda: New Camp, New ArrivalsPlay video

Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

UNHCR struggles to reach isolated groups of refugees who fled inter-ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 100,000 are sheltering in neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

Tens of thousands of people have reportedly fled a wave of ethnic violence in the north-west of the embattled Democratic Republic of the Congo. The civilians have fled from Equateur province, crossing the Ubangi River and seeking shelter in Republic of the Congo.