Postscript to 'Responding to the food crisis in Zaire'

The ENN asked UNHCR to comment on this article. The comments below are made by two UNHCR staff members, Zohra Labdi and Killian Kleinschmidt, who were closely involved with/responsible for the refugee feeding programme in Kisangani during the period referred to in the article. The comments do not necessarily represent the position of UNHCR and are the views of the authors.

This article serves to both construct a chronology of events in and around Kisangani between May and September 1997 and a socio-political analysis of those events. Having read the article we would like to add further information.

The CARE UK team was seconded to UNHCR and arrived in May 1997. This was at a fairly late stage in the on-going crisis and allowed the agency to build upon a great deal of work already under-taken. The CARE UK team were highly professional, hard working and contributed enormously with their expertise in food distribution programmes. CARE UK were asked to co-ordinate the programme (carried out by different implementing NGOs) and to facilitate the delivery of goods and financial transactions between UNHCR and implementing partners. Although the food distribution systems were already in place, CARE UK developed and improved these systems. Many other NGOs were also involved in the food distribution and nutrition rehabilitation programmes.

The introduction of kitchens had already been agreed upon before CARE arrived although not on the same scale. There was no reason for setting up a full kitchen programme earlier. First, the refugees had to be 'stabilised' at their initial sites so that large quantities of food had to reach them very fast. This had to be achieved without a good infrastructure and logistics system in place. Bulk general rations (dry rations) were therefore the quickest way to get food out. During this initial first aid' period capacity was built up, trained staff were identified by NGOs and health, sanitation and tracing programmes were started. Although the overall programme might have benefited from more kitchens to start with, the bulk food distributions were initially successful. However, subsequent massacres and site dispersal resulted in a total absence of food assistance for ten days or more. After refugees returned to their sites, bulk food distributions had become virtually unworkable because of the threats from local villagers, lack of safe storage facilities and extensive delays in delivery due to travel restrictions. These bulk distributions therefore had to be reduced although this quickly created tensions which then had to be mitigated by rapidly extending the kitchen programme.

Although the article discusses the justification for the kitchen feeding and how the ration was calculated, we believe that with hindsight this emergency dictated both a need for over-supplying' ration commodities rather than providing food based on exactly calculated nutritional needs and for supplying some of it in a dry general ration form which could be bartered and easily transported. The reasons for this were that the ration should really have supplied for the needs of the strongest and fittest who if unable to sell their food (if it was cooked for instance) would steal items other than food from the weak. This was regularly observed in the sites. Also, as the refugees may have needed to move again with short notice, it would have made sense to have circulated enough food so that they could feed themselves for a few days without assistance if needs be. A continuation of a dry bulk ration was therefore needed in addition to the kitchen programme.

The issues of repatriation versus provision of assistance raised in the article also needs some clarification. In a situation where refugees have been dispersed and massacred and with a high probability of this happening again, there was no question that they had to be moved out of the forest to the 'open'. However, when 'transit' centres in the open were "emptied" it was apparent that protection could not be guaranteed anywhere. Several discussions were held with aid workers, many of whom had not been present at the time of the initial dispersals and who advocated treating and feeding the weakest refugees in the health posts and feeding centres in the forest until their recovery. However, although this was undoubtedly a 'correct' approach in terms of dealing with malnutrition and ill-health a more pragmatic approach that would save more lives needed to be taken in the end. Health screening of refugees before repatriation, with the help of NGOs was always undertaken and where potential returnees were not able to make the journey or were too sick, they were returned to their transit centre.

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Reference this page

Zohra Labdi and Killian Kleinschmidt (1998). Postscript to 'Responding to the food crisis in Zaire'. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p13. www.ennonline.net/fex/3/postscript2