As an Ebola outbreak continues to advance in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the country’s bishops fear that responses to the epidemic are being complicated by increased rebel attacks.
The deadly disease and militia violence are proving a toxic mix, ahead of December’s general election, which, according to the bishops, provides the best chance for peace in the country.
In the balloting, the people will be voting to find a successor for President Joseph Kabila, the 47-year-old leader who has announced his retirement. He ascended to power after the assassination of his father, Laurent Kabila. Although the constitution required Kabila leave office in December 2016 at the end of his two five-year terms, the leader has stayed on, claiming that the DRC was not ready for the elections.
In the midst of increased local and international calls for his departure, Kabila’s remaining in power ignited tensions, violent protests, and a government crackdown, prompting the country’s Catholic bishops conference to move to negotiate a truce. That helped the country avoid political crisis and chaos, a scenario that would have meant more suffering for the people caught in a cycle of violence for decades.
But another Ebola epidemic has struck this year, adding to the challenges ahead of the elections. The Ebola outbreak is the tenth in DRC since the discovery of the virus in 1976. Its symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, and internal bleeding in some cases. If left untreated it causes death.
The latest cycle of the disease has emerged in areas where militia attacks are making it difficult to mount an effective response. Across the country, militant attacks have killed thousands of people, according to the United Nations, with more than 4.5 million displaced from their homes.
On September 22, a suspected Islamist militant group, the Allied Democratic Forces, attacked areas in Butembo-Beni diocese, killing 14 civilians and four soldiers in Beni town. The town has the highest concentration of new Ebola cases, but the attacks from militia groups and adherence to traditional beliefs are disrupting treatment and vaccination, raising fears the disease will spread further.
The bishops are highly concerned by the turn of events, despite the presence of government and UN troops. Out of a population of 80 million, 40 percent of Congolese are Catholics.
“It is with great consternation that we have received the sad news of the deadly attacks perpetrated in Beni…by armed men, while the area is severely afflicted by the Ebola epidemic,” said DRC bishops’ conference president Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa in September after the attack.
While stressing the bishops’ spiritual closeness to people of Butemo-Beni diocese, Archbishop Utembi expressed indignation at the government and international community’s failure to stop the massacres and kidnappings.
“We wonder who these assailants are to challenge our national army, which is assisted by MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo]…what is their claim? Who benefits from these crimes?” said the bishop.
The Ebola epidemic has hit North Kivu and Uturi Provinces in eastern DRC, according to the government. Five new cases were confirmed in Beni in the first week October, prompting a shift of focus to the town, a regional hub. Since July, total confirmed cases in the region have reached 140, with 108 deaths, the government and international agencies have reported.
When the first cases appeared in August in North Kivu, Bishop Melchisedesh Sikuli of Butembo-Beni said it was possible to control the fever by intensifying awareness creation. At the same time the bishop feared that the people were not being properly informed and that some villagers were hiding the sick.
“We think it’s possible to raise awareness so that people can understand,” said Bishop Sikuli in a statement in August.
This is the second Ebola outbreak to hit the country this year. In May, Bishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Mbandaka-Bikoro suspended sacraments requiring physical contact during an outbreak in the northwestern region. The suspended sacraments included baptisms, confirmations, anointing of the sick, and ordinations. The sign of peace was done verbally and the Communion was no longer given on the tongue.
The measures came after Father Lucien Ambunga, a priest who contracted the disease, was put under quarantine. The priest had contracted the disease while anointing the sick, and was later declared healed.
As for the upcoming election, the bishops say they want to see a credible, inclusive, transparent, and peaceful process. For them, the election is the real road to a peaceful country. They are, however, concerned about the current state of the electoral process.
Their concerns include a biometric voter registration which they fear could leave out thousands of eligible voters. They also doubt the reliability of electronic voting machines being used by the National Election Commission. The tense socio-political climate and continuing insecurity, especially in the east of the country, is another serious concern of the bishops.
Although Kabila is not running, allegations have emerged that the ruling party may be working to manipulate the election.