Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo & New York — 'It is still a fragile time, despite the recent positive trends in decreasing caseload.'
An uptick in violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is raising fears that hard-won gains against the country's worst ever Ebola outbreak could be undone as aid groups and the UN evacuate staff and response efforts are suspended.
A UN military base in the major town of Beni was set alight on Monday amid militia attacks and protests by residents. The World Health Organisation said last week that the violence risks reversing "major gains" made against the deadly virus, which had infected just a handful of people in recent weeks.
Gunfire could be heard on Monday in Beni as police fired at protesters, who say peacekeepers and government forces stationed in the region are failing to protect them from attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia.
The protests follow the launch of large-scale military operations by the Congolese army against the ADF - an Islamist rebel group formed in 1995 in opposition to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
The army said it has captured several ADF bases in recent weeks, but the Kivu Security Tracker, which maps violence in eastern Congo, said at least 81 civilians have been killed in some of the worst attacks in Beni in years.
Ebola operations suspended
Protesters have not targeted Ebola workers, but key relief operations such as contact tracing and vaccinations have been suspended at a time when aid workers felt the 15-month epidemic - which has cost more than 2,100 lives - was finally coming under control. Zero cases have been reported on several days this month.
Pierre Vernière, Beni project coordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, told The New Humanitarian that all response activities are on "standby", while the main laboratory used to diagnose Ebola patients in Beni is only working every other day, creating a delay in confirming cases.
"We think as soon as the activities come back to normal we will discover new cases," Vernière said.
A vaccination campaign to contain an outbreak of measles - that has cost nearly 5,000 lives this year across Congo - is also likely to be affected in Beni, Vernière added.
The protests are the latest in a series of recent security incidents that have undermined Ebola relief efforts and hindered access to some affected communities.
Earlier this month, a community journalist who had hosted an Ebola awareness programme was murdered in Lwemba, a town in northeastern Ituri province. Response teams have since been unable to reach the area, said Pauline Schibli, Ebola programmes director at Mercy Corps.
"It is still a fragile time, despite the recent positive trends in decreasing caseload," said Schibli. "Any interruption could result in a spike of new cases."
'Protect civilians or leave'
The ADF is responsible for a series of gruesome massacres since late 2014 that have left hundreds dead, though a report from the Congo Research Group suggests other actors - including the Congolese army - have been involved in the killings.
Some recent attacks have been claimed by the so-called Islamic State group, whose financial facilitator Waleed Ahmed Zein has given money to the ADF. But links between the two groups remain unclear.
The recent attacks have led to growing anger against the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. Known by its French acronym MONUSCO, it has hundreds of military personnel stationed in Beni and more than 16,000 peacekeepers overall in Congo.
LUCHA, a leading activist group participating in the protests, said on Twitter yesterday that the mission should act to protect civilians or leave.
François Grignon, acting deputy special representative at MONUSCO, said the UN cannot carry out unilateral operations in the same space as the Congolese military, but joint operations between the UN and army have since been announced.
MONUSCO has a mandate to protect civilians from armed groups, but over the course of its 20-year existence it has regularly faced accusations of inaction - most notably in 2012 when Goma was captured by M23 rebels.
In December 2017, 15 Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed and 44 wounded when suspected ADF fighters ambushed their Beni base in one of the deadliest ever attacks on the UN.
Budgetary pressures are forcing the mission, which spends around $1 billion every year, to scale back its efforts, while a recently published strategic review recommends the mission begins a phased withdrawal from 2022.
Fresh conflicts in Congo's Ituri and South Kivu provinces have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in recent months. Aid groups say these crises have been overshadowed by the ongoing Ebola epidemic.