IDP Camps

This weekend I experienced a new level of humanitarian awareness. Seeing the bloated bellies of Ethiopian children during my own youth was my first knowledge of such starvation in the world. Now I’m responsible for the management of programs that feed and care for some of the most depraved populations on this Earth.

We visit two of the eight internally displaced persons (IDP) camps surrounding Goma, DR Congo. One of these camps is beyond the line of fire, having had to be evacuated in October 2008 during the recent escalation in fighting. We are responsible for the primary health care for the 800,000 inhabitants of these camps.

The camps themselves vary in terms of the composition of housing and so forth. In the older camps there are wooden structures that were built decades ago when fighting first broke out in DRC and Rwanda. Others are basic frames with tarps displaying the various agencies supporting these camps. The newest structures are made from local materials and probably measure 8 ft x 4 ft for a family.

There is singing in the middle of the camps. Kids learn to count by dancing and singing. They even learn gymnastics, impressing us with their handsprings. They ask for money, the only English word they appear to know. They stare with curiosity. They run away. They come back again.

We are their diversion for the day. Based on the numbers of NGOs here we certainly aren’t the first white people they have seen, but we do offer a welcome distraction from the difficulties of their lives.

But life does go on. In fact, IDPs come to rely on the camps. With food, shelter, and medical care there is little reason for them to go back to the still rebel infested areas from which they fled. I ponder the trap of such camps. Seeing both the necessity to assist in such a humanitarian crises, and yet creating a dependence that is disruptive to the culture; in fact creating a new camp culture over time.

Once again I face the moral dilemmas of my work. When to intervene. How to do no harm. How to help them improve their own lives. There are no easy answers.

As I face a myriad of management issues here in my work, it was an invaluable experience to see those who are benefiting from our programs. My ability to improve the management of this mission directly impacts the livelihoods of these communities.


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