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Congo’s Elderly Act As Caregivers – But Who Will Care for Them?

By Caelin Briggs

Life in a displaced persons camp is not easy. Even for the strongest of the strong, surviving in an insecure and inhospitable camp is both physically and emotionally grueling. But for the elderly, disabled, or ill, the demands of camp life can seem insurmountable.

These individuals – especially those without family members to support them – are often the most vulnerable, and their needs are often overlooked.  

Domitila is 80 years old. Eleven months ago, she fled her home in Masisi, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and came to Lac Vert spontaneous site. Violence had consumed her home village, and she escaped with three young grandchildren whose parents had died of disease. Today, Domitila is the only guardian for these young children. They depend on her for food, shelter, and care. But as an elderly woman alone in the camp, supporting these children is a constant struggle.

“I am old now,” Domitila tells me, “I cannot spend long days working in fields anymore to earn money to buy food.”

Like other spontaneous sites in eastern DRC, Lac Vert has not been receiving regular food distributions, so Domitila has had to beg for assistance from her neighbors or pick small amounts of food from nearby plots. She does everything she can to ensure that her grandchildren are well-fed and healthy, but she is tired. And despite her hard work the family continues to go hungry.

The elderly, disabled, and ill are also among the most affected by security threats. Unlike younger, physically-stronger people, they cannot always escape in the face of imminent violence.

Domitila remembers one day when Lac Vert was attacked by members of the M23 rebel group. The militants had just withdrawn from Goma, the provincial capital, and were raiding nearby IDP camps as they made their retreat. “We could hear them coming,” she tells me. “They attacked the Mugunga camps first, and then they came for us.”

The rebels raped more than 10 women in the camps and stole anything they could carry. “When they neared the camp we hid, but there was nowhere to go and I cannot run fast anymore. There was no one to protect us. All I could do was hide in the bush and wait.”

Domitila was lucky: she escaped unharmed and only her tarp was taken. But things could easily have been very different for Domitila and her family.

Displaced persons in eastern DRC are in desperate need of support. Food and security remain two of the biggest challenges, particularly for the elderly. As the humanitarian community looks for ways to improve assistance, it is critical that they consider the specific needs and conditions of vulnerable groups like the elderly and disabled. Their needs are unique and substantial, and they often have trouble accessing the existing support systems available within the camps.

Humanitarian actors must ensure that these people benefit from aid distributions, are protected from threats, and are treated with the dignity they deserve.

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