Bunia - the principal town of Ituri district in North-Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) - hit international headlines in April when fierce fighting broke out between rival groups after the withdrawal of Ugandan forces. In an interview, Dr Victor Kibonge describes the humanitarian situation he found at the scene, and how he and fellow ECHO expert François Goemans helped to set up a clinic for the war wounded.
By mid-May a large proportion of the town's population had fled and aid workers were forced to evacuate because of the worsening security situation. The civilian population remaining in Bunia - estimated at no more than 15,000 - sought refuge in and around the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) barracks. Some became direct victims of the violence - killed or wounded by cross-fire or deliberate attacks.
"When I arrived in Bunia", said Dr. Kibonge, "the humanitarian situation was critical. The hygiene conditions at the camp outside the MONUC barracks were deplorable, and there was a serious risk of epidemics. I was taken to the MONUC garden where about twenty wounded people were lying on a plastic sheet. I was asked to start operating immediately, but there was no medicine, surgical equipment or anaesthetic available. I called Kinshasa and Goma to order the necessary equipment - including blood for transfusion. It was brought in the next day on ECHO Flight."
Meanwhile, François Goemans went in search of a place to house and treat the wounded. He found a large abandoned administrative building in central Bunia measuring about 500 to 700 square metres. It was in a filthy state, and there was no water available for cleaning. Despite these conditions, about twenty women from the refugee camp agreed to help us turn the place into a makeshift clinic. We broke down the door, emptied it of unwanted objects and cleaned it from top to toe.
Dr. Kibonge explained that after ten hours of non-stop work, the building was transformed into a clinic ready to receive its first patients - victims of stray bullets, ricochets and deliberate knife or machete attacks. "I classed the most serious cases by type of wound, and other cases by types of medical problem."
François made telephone contact with ECHO's NGO partners and asked them to send in doctors. He also managed to find a local doctor in Bunia. The man was under shock because he could not find his wife and children, and his house had been looted. But when the doctor was brought to the clinic and saw the needs of the patients, he gradually mustered the strength to begin work.
"During this time the fighting was intermittent and we were working under very dangerous conditions. Every time the clinic door opened I could see five or six young militia men sitting across the square. We painted a large red cross on the building to show it was a hospital."