I arrived last week to Uvira, South Kivu, in order to participate in a marathon of surprisingly exhausting meetings with SOS FED field workers concerning the current rape prevention program they have partnered with AP on. The journey to Congo from Bujumbura was much the usual-annoying slow and marred with checkpoints. However, a shocking event occurring on the road into Uvira the previous week had forced me to prepare a bit for the chaos that often ensues when working in and around South Kivu, Congo. This blog, consequently, is much more about this event than the content of the meetings we held in Uvira.
Last week, a gas truck coming into town overturned on the ever-perilous excuse for a road into Uvira. The truck flipped near Sange village, which is just outside Uvira, and was reportedly trying to make good time to Uvira to avoid driving at night when the road fills with armed groups and road blocks. As many Congolese in the area of the truck converged to collect the valuable gas spilling from the ruptured tanker, the spill ignited and burned possibly 300 people to death. Many of those burned to death were not interested in the pillage of the spilling gas, but were simply watching World Cup matches on generator-powered television sets in the thatch hut bars which offer the ‘nightlife’ in any Congolese village. An exploding tanker, however, does not discriminate and a large portion of the densely populated village was reduced to ashes.
The estimates of the death toll are imprecise, but the fall-out since the original accident has been drastic as Uvira has no medical facilities equipped to deal with burn victims, and no space to keep them out of the dust and dirt. A nurse from SOS FED working in Sange temporarily commented that the death toll could easily double due to the likeliness of burn victims not killed by their wounds developing untreatable infections. He also mentioned the difficulty in counting the dead, as ‘…young kids and those closest to the truck when it exploded were just ash by the time the fire died down a bit.’ Some burn victims were sent to the already over-burdened hospitals in Bukavu, the provincial capital, but the majority of burned civilians have to make do with local services and occasional visits by Médecins Sans Frontières mobile clinics and other NGOs helping out where they can. You’ll find a recent report of the incident here.
In a place where a liter of gas’s value is a lot more than most people’s daily income, one can understand the lure of spilling gas quickly absorbing into the sand. I immediately thought of the situation a lot of people in Sange might have been in at the time and the difficult decision to be made. The opportunity to grab an empty US AID oil can and join in on a classic ‘victimless crime’-especially in order to assure another week’s meals-might be too hard to resist. In this instance, small-time theft had tragic repercussions for an area of the world which has already seen its share of tragedy.
Posted By Ned Meerdink (DR Congo)
Posted Jul 12th, 2010