From Castlecomer to The Congo

A CASTLECOMER woman is currently on mission with humanitarian medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

A CASTLECOMER woman is currently on mission with humanitarian medical aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Based in the provincial capital Goma, she is responsible for ensuring that tonnes of essential medicines brought into the country reach the patients who desperately need them throughout the region.

In mid-November, people in eastern Congo were thrown into yet another humanitarian crisis when a rebel group known as M23 marched on Goma. In the fighting that ensued, hundreds were injured and thousands of civilians fled. Though M23 has now apparently withdrawn from Goma, more than 100,000 people are still living in precarious conditions around the city.

As fighting reached the city, Sharon was confined to the house she shares with other MSF international staff for their own safety.

“We could hear the shooting and mortars around us and I was desperately calling my Congolese colleagues to make sure that they were all safe and accounted for” she explains. “It was too unsafe to venture outside and we had no idea what was going on.”

MSF staff could return to the office a few days later. “It was odd,” said Sharon, “the streets were empty. No morning traffic jams, no passenger motorbikes, no market traders.”

Despite this, all of MSF’s Congolese staff turned up for work. “I was amazed at the level of commitment and dedication shown by my Congolese colleagues” said Sharon.

Cut off from the rest of the province

An important priority for Sharon, who is on her second mission with MSF, was to ensure that the supply of essential medicines to projects throughout the troubled province didn’t rupture. This could have had potentially fatal consequences for Congolese people in need of urgent medical assistance.

“We were cut off at that point” she explained. “The airport was closed, the port was closed, roads out of town were too insecure to use due to active fighting and troop movements. I couldn’t move any medical supplies to our projects elsewhere in the region and couldn’t access any cash to pay our local suppliers as the banks were closed.”

By reorganising shipments and flights through the neighbouring province of South Kivu, MSF was able to get supplies sent directly to hospitals and health centers in North Kivu province. Fortunately, the airport and port are now open.

Emergency response

MSF which was already running several health care projects in the area, rapidly established additional emergency services, treating war-injured patients and assisting people who had been forced to flee their homes because of the fighting. MSF is now active in several camps for displaced people, where teams are providing primary health care, screening and treating malnourished children and people suffering from cholera and other communicable diseases, vaccinating against measles, and offering support to survivors of sexual violence.

Although life has returned to the streets of Goma, the city remains extremely unsafe. “The tension is palpable – every morning there are new reports of violent robberies and shootings the previous night. Some of my Congolese colleagues have been attacked at night. People are fearful of what’s to come’.

As strained negotiations between the M23 rebels and the Congolese government continue in Uganda, Sharon has ensured that medical supplies are readily available in the case of renewed fighting. “We’re prepared for the worst” said Sharon “but hope it doesn’t come to that”.

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