Kasai, Democratic Republic of Congo – Almost $1.7bn – that’s how much aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are appealing for to help 10.5 million people in distress in 2018. It is the largest funding appeal in the history of the country.
We’re talking about a complex humanitarian situation brought about by decades of conflict, compounded by new rebellions and political tensions after the country’s electoral commission failed to organise a presidential poll for two years after the term of President Joseph Kabila ended in 2016.
The statistics are staggering and the picture grim.
Last year was difficult for millions of Congolese – they dealt with violence, disease, malnutrition and other losses to their already meagre livelihoods.
It was a period that the country topped the world with the number of newly internally displaced people in a single year – 1.7 million – most of them from Grand Kasai region.
It’s a vast area divided into five provinces, rich in diamonds and although it has always been plagued by territorial and political tensions over competing mineral interests, locals had never experienced the kind of violence that started in August 2016.
Hundreds of thousands fled their homes – many sought refuge in the thick of the forest, while others ran into neighbouring Angola. People are now coming back to their homes. Some are sick, starving and carry horrific tales.
That’s what took us to Kasai after months of trying and failing to get government access.
When we visited a UNICEF clinic in Tshikashi – on the outskirts of Kasai Central’s capital Kananga – we met 30-year-old Mubaka Tshimbula and her two-year-old son Kabongo Tumba. They had just arrived at the treatment centre having been referred from another hospital.
Both were clearly frail and unwell. Mubaka told us she fled from her village with her four children and spent two months in hiding with little to eat or drink.
The Kamuina Nsapu rebellion in Kasai escalated when a traditional chief, critical of Kabila, was killed by security forces. His death precipitated a conflict with devastating consequences.
The Catholic Church estimates that more than 3,000 people have been killed since.
The United Nations discovered dozens of mass graves. The rebels, government forces and a state-linked militia called Bana Mura, which shares a name with the hill in the east where presidential guards train, are all accused of human rights abuses.
As we moved further away from the capital to more remote villages, we came across burned government buildings. In Tshimbulu, we were shown a destroyed house that belonged to a local police commander who was burned alive inside by armed men believed to be Kamuina Nsapu fighters.
It is in some of these villages where dozens of mass graves have been found.
The UN investigators who travelled to Bukonde in March 2017, to investigate mass killings, were beheaded. Investigations into what exactly happened are still ongoing but both the military and Kamuina Nsapu have traded accusations.
Our visit to the countryside was highly restricted. We were accompanied by military minders and they were hesitant to allow us to film around mass graves.
However, everyone with whom we managed to have a conversation painted the same picture – extreme violence meted out on them by both the militia group and government forces – and of some of their loved ones buried in those graves.
In one of the villages we found, people were getting food aid from World Vision. Aid workers said funding is low. In 2017, only half of the $812m appealed for was received.
A fragile peace process is now in place and many people are praying for the best – they are also realistically preparing for whatever eventuality.
One woman – a trader whose husband was killed by security forces and her son by militia fighters – told us that she has never in all her life in Kasai seen the kind of violence she has witnessed.
“I hope you won’t have to come back to tell this same story,” she said at the end of our interview.