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Erupting Congo Volcano Is Latest Crisis for DRC as It Faces “Largest Neglected Emergency on Earth”

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We go to Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where tens of thousands of people are evacuating the city of Goma after a volcanic eruption killed dozens on May 22 and amid warnings that Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, could blow yet again. We speak with Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who says the volcano is worsening an already acute crisis in the country, where rising violence and displacement have left more than 20 million in need of humanitarian aid. “It’s the largest neglected emergency on Earth,” he says. “We need to talk about the war, the misery, the hunger and the whole looting of DRC from strong capital, from all over the world, that want to have the minerals that is in the ground under here.” He also discusses the war in Yemen, how relatively small investments in humanitarian aid can help millions of people around the world and why rich countries have a responsibility to make vaccines accessible.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Tens of thousands of people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have fled their homes in the city of Goma after authorities warned Mount Nyiragongo might erupt again. Authorities have ordered as many as a million people to evacuate. At least 32 people died when the volcano began erupting on May 22nd. The volcano is one of the many crises confronting the DRC, where more than 5 million people are internally displaced after years of wars.

We return now to my conversation with Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a former high official at the United Nations. We were scheduled to interview him on our live program Tuesday from Goma, but he had to cancel at the last minute after an earthquake forced him to evacuate his office. Later that morning, we spoke to him from an outside location while the earth continued to shake. I asked him to talk about the situation in Goma.

JAN EGELAND: Yes, I am indeed in Goma. There is an earthquake here every five minutes, 10 minutes. There was one while we just talked. So, there is enormous seismic activity. People are scared. Many are leaving town for the second time. This building of my organization, the Norwegian Refugee Council, we have to evacuate, because it’s in a red zone. The lava, which may flow again from the volcano, which is just up here to my right, might come back.

It is really a mess, in a situation that I come to because I would like to give some publicity to the enormous crisis that is overlooked in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are 20 million people here who need humanitarian relief. It’s the largest neglected emergency on Earth. So I’m glad we can talk about it, and not only because of the volcano, that do get some attention. We need to talk about the war, the misery, the hunger and the whole looting of DRC from strong capital, from all over the world, that want to have the minerals that is in the ground under here.

AMY GOODMAN: UNICEF is reporting over a hundred children are missing in the area after having been separated from their parents following the eruption. Can you talk about how the country is dealing right now and what the Norwegian Refugee Council is doing?

JAN EGELAND: We are going to — the humanitarian organizations will care for those who fled from the volcano. And unless it really has an eruption, that would become, you know, truly catastrophic — now there is one-and-a-half million people here in Goma — we need to be able to do more for the millions who have been displaced by the conflicts. There are 150 armed groups active in the Congo. It is really horrific, what is happening here.

AMY GOODMAN: And going to that larger issue of refugees, in 2020 alone, natural disasters and conflict uprooted, as you said, more than 40 million people. You deal with countries. And then there’s the overall crisis of wars, climate change, and then you have the pandemic. Can you talk about how the pandemic has affected the refugee situation in the world?

JAN EGELAND: Well, the pandemic really has been a tremendous medical shock and social shock for the whole world. The United States has suffered. So have we in Europe. But it’s hard for us in the North and the Northwest of the world to understand the socioeconomic meltdown that it has led to in places like Congo.

So, here, in the country which has the highest richness of minerals in the world, people live on one-and-a-half dollars per day. When that one-and-a-half dollar is gone, because the whole economy gets paralyzed because of the lockdowns and the end to much of international trade and exchanges, people starve. So, here, the pandemic causes mass starvation, 27 million people. Imagine 27 million people are now food-insecure. That’s a euphemism for they don’t know if they’ll have food next week at the moment. Many millions are now in acute hunger. And we are underfunded and overstretched as humanitarian organizations in this, the most neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: This volcano also adding to thousands of refugees trying to go over into the — over the border into Rwanda. What does that mean?

JAN EGELAND: Well, yes. I mean, Rwanda is actually behind me. You can look at — you can see Rwanda, Rwandan mountains in the back here. So, Rwanda, which is relatively well organized and do not have an active volcano at the moment, is where thousands and thousands try to flee from Goma when there are eruptions and these tremendous earthquakes. Rwanda is a very small place, though. The majority of people in Congo flee within their own country. Five-and-a-half million people have fled conflict in this country. Five-and-a-half million, that’s — I mean, there’s more people fleeing in Congo than there are inhabitants of my country, Norway. And each year we accumulate more people fleeing. There is little funding for us here. We are really, really overstretched. And we do not get the message out that there is a tremendous emergency in the Congo, precisely for that reason. People are not fleeing across the borders; they are fleeing within their own country, and their misery is also hidden within their own country.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you have so much to do there, but I also want to ask you about Yemen, speaking about children, speaking about people devastated by war, also by climate change. You were in Yemen earlier this year, where in addition to the devastation of the U.S.-backed Saudi-UAE war on the people of Yemen, you observed the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis. Can you talk about what you found there?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, Yemen is also one of those countries where sort of all of the plagues of the Bible come at the same time, similar to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I am now. In Yemen, however, the climate change, on top of a senseless war, blockade and poverty beyond belief, means that there are places in Yemen that have become unlivable. There is no water. There will be zero water in the future.

And I think it’s important to also understand, for us in the High North, Norwegians and Americans and others, who did so much to cause climate change, that we are least and last hit, though it’s the Yemenis, it’s the Africans in the Sahel belt, who are first and hardest hit. There needs to be investment in making them robust to meet this climate change that is coming in the poorest places on Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jan Egeland, as you travel from one place to another in the world, though you are based in Norway, what gives you hope at this point, when you’re seeing the level of refugees in the world, the walls that are being built, the devastation of people, as the children in Gaza?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I’m glad you’re asking that, because, you know, I’ve been now a humanitarian worker all my life, for 40 years, really, started up as a volunteer in the Catholic Relief organization in Colombia in 1976, ’77.

What gives me hope and energy to continue is that I see we are reaching people. We’re saving lives all the time. Norwegian Refugee Council alone reached more than 11 million displaced people and refugees last year, with education and livelihoods and food and shelter and water and sanitation and free legal aid. We can do so much with small resources.

So, that’s why we urge, you know, richer nations and people to help us reach those who are suffering alone, because we’ve seen how much we can do. For example, here in the Congo, with small resources, we are bringing hope, education, livelihoods and a chance for people to get out of dependence. The rich soil here — many of the people we have helped, that had to flee from violence, are now self-sufficient because they are toiling the soil somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, let me ask you something, because what you said made me think about this. Do you see the pandemic as a microcosm? Or, in fact, it’s macro. But what we’re seeing now, on the one hand, the U.S. was the hardest hit; on the other hand, you’ve got the wealthiest countries in the world having enough vaccines to inoculate their population over and over again, and you have the poorest countries in the world may not see a vaccine for years. Can you talk about the significance of this vaccine apartheid, as it’s becoming known?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, I mean, it’s devastating insecurity, this. Listen, we are — insecurity for the whole world. It’s obvious that we’re not safe, anyone, until every place is safe. If Congo doesn’t get vaccines and we get the Congolese to be vaccinated, it will live on here like Ebola would. And it can — since it’s so contagious, it will come back, in new forms and variations, to ourselves.

So, the self-interest of the richer countries to help all of the world to be inoculated is so obvious. So, when there are many, many nations that is not even having 1% of its population vaccinated, that should give some pause to reflection for those who are now close to having vaccinated all of their citizens.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, former U.N. official, speaking to us earlier this week from Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

When we come back, we look at the hundredth anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, one of the deadliest acts of racist terror in U.S. history.

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