(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Relief barge reaches central town of Bena Dibele

A shipment of humanitarian supplies reached the town of Bena Dibele in central Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) recently, a statement from the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) said.

The barge, containing 760 mt of humanitarian supplies, is the first of its kind on the Sankuru River since December 1998, when the country's ongoing civil war forced a closure of all commercial and humanitarian river traffic, creating critical shortages of essential manufactured products in the beleaguered Tshumbe region, CRS said.

The shipment, consisting of iodised salt, clothing, fuel, soap, school supplies, medicine and other goods, took 19 days, having covered 1,300 km under United Nations escort, to reach its destination from the capital, Kinshasa.

The effort, coordinated by Caritas Congo and supported by CRS and other local and international nongovernmental organisations, has been more than three months in planning, requiring the permission of both the DRC government and the Rwandan-backed Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD) armed opposition movement.

"What we are really aiming to do with this project is to open up the river to normal traffic," Cassie Knight, a CRS programme officer said. "This is something that all of the belligerent parties have agreed to, and we're hoping river traffic can restart," he added.

Once the goods are unloaded, the barges will be taken back to Kinshasa and distributed to health and social service programmes in the city - part of a CRS-supported effort to stimulate the local economy in the agriculturally rich region surrounding Bena Dibele, CRS said.

Though able to grow a variety of foods locally, farmers in the region have been unable to sell their goods since river traffic was halted, strangling the local economy. "This is a region that has relied on river transport for its whole history," Knight said. "For the people here to see the arrival of the boat was a sign of hope," he added.

The distribution of the goods, targeting children, pregnant women, widows and other vulnerable groups in the region, will begin by late March.

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