"East Congo is hell on earth," says Uri Amit, the emergency division manager of Brit Olam,
the international Israeli-Jewish volunteer movement, when asked why the humanitarian aid organization is dispatching medical equipment to the area.
"We know about the atrocious situation not only from the news broadcasts, but also from the heartbreaking personal stories told by the Congolese refugees who are residing in Israel and with whom we are in close contact. Although the aid is just a drop in the ocean, at this stage every drop is crucial. The chance of saving even a single child or woman is what drives us," Amit says.
Amit, who in recent weeks has been working with organization members to recruit donations of emergency medical equipment and medicine, which will shortly be shipped to East Congo, is well aware of the terrible situation in the area.
Between the years 1998 and 2004, some four million people have been killed in what has been described as "the deadliest and most cruel conflict since World War II." Despite the fact that the bloody civil war - which broke out in 1994 following an influx of Hutu tribe members coming in from neighboring Rwanda - officially ended in 2003, the battles are still raging in East Congo.
The United Nations has reported that some 1,200 people die in the area every day, the majority from starvation or disease, hundreds of thousands have been left with nothing, and a similar number of people cross the border into neighboring countries.
Just two years ago, after the medical aid teams first came to the isolated areas in East Congo, the inconceivable extent of the killing and violence became apparent. During the civil war, the huge country, which has an abundance of natural quarries such as diamonds, gold and metal, was divided among rebel areas where the government ruled.
Murder, looting, group rape and atrocious abuse were commonplace; entire villages were wiped out by militia groups, rebels or soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls were brutally raped, the more "fortunate ones," were raped just once while others were held captive for months in the forests only to be released in advanced stages of pregnancy.
"Rape was a tool in the genocide, and the rapists told their victims that they would be carrying Hutu tribe members in their bellies, and that's how the Tutsi will be wiped out," members of the organization said.
A small community of Congolese refugees comprising 150 people is now living in Israel. The ties formed over the years between members of the community and members of Brit Olam, says Amit, forms the basis of the organization.
"We have already begun preparing the infrastructure for sending the medical equipment and medicines to hospitals in East Congo, and in parallel we have collected the equipment that will be dispatched in an initial shipment. We are now trying to raise funds to cover the cost of the shipment itself; meanwhile the equipment is waiting in the organization's storage facilities in Israel."
"We made contact with a hospital in the Kaniola area via local residents and members of the community in Israel. Through them we located five hospitals to which the equipment will be transferred by the UN," he says. "Although there is a war raging in the region, there is an agreement that hospitals are out of bounds on both sides, and that's why I am certain that the equipment will reach its destination. It's important to understand that the hospitals in East Congo are suffering from a dire lack of equipment and medicine, not to mention operating rooms or patient wards."
Children in refugee camp in Congo (Photo: Brit Olam)
"In pictures we received, (we have not posted them due to their disturbing content), we saw horrible scenes of limbs being amputated by improvised methods."
In parallel, says Amit, the organization is planning to found an agricultural village for the rape victims, where they can live and work for their livelihood while raising animals and growing vegetables. "The women and young victims raped in Congo suffer twice, because they are expelled from their families if they survive the terrible act. They or their offspring, born as a result of the rape, have no chance of returning to their local communities.
"After the women are trained and after receiving preliminary equipment, they will in due course be able to run the village independently and to rehabilitate their lives to some extent."
What would you say to those who say you should first take care of those in your own backyard?
"We are active in providing emergency aid in Israel as well, and during the second Lebanon war we run projects in the north that helped children forced to stay in the bomb shelters. We invited them to summer camps, and we held a great happening in Tel Aviv. We help in emergency situations in Israel and the world , and I definitely believe that this is the way to go. This type of activity is first and foremost moral and educational. We must not shut or eyes to the suffering of others, and aiding them doesn't come instead of providing local aid."
The International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement seeks to promote social welfare, community leadership, civic participation, and humanitarian aid among and between people and nations.