Democratic Republic of Congo

Frequent House Fires Have City Youths Forming Amateur Firefighting Crews in DRC

In Goma’s Birere slum, hazards including candles and kerosene lamps abound, water is scarce, and there are few emergency services or decent roads. Overcrowding is another factor, but a group of young volunteers in the neighborhood has created a fire response service.

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Frequent House Fires Have City Youths Forming Amateur Firefighting Crews in DRC

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Children gather sheet metal and other supplies they’ll use to rebuild a small house in which to live as they wait for additional assistance.

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GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Birere is known as the dirtiest and most disorganized low-income neighborhood in Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province.

Here, families live in small, overcrowded wooden houses.

On the inside, many of the homes are decorated with colorful local fabrics. But on the outside, the black wood reveals a dark secret. It is black because it is soaked in used motor oil to make it resistant to wood-eating insect attacks.

These homes are highly flammable.

INSIDE THE STORY: Reporting on people who have just experienced a devastating tragedy is a difficult job for a journalist. One reporter in the Democratic Republic of Congo explains how she came to both do her job and show compassion.

In this neighborhood, a family of eight might squeeze into a two-room house with a living room and one small bedroom. A simple two-bedroom home often accommodates a family of 12. The living room serves as the kitchen in most houses.

Birere also lacks electricity, as most neighborhoods in Goma do. So residents rely on candles and kerosene lamps as their only source of light. Cooking pots sit on open flames while meals are prepared.

Fires, of course, are common here.

Bahati Sikudjuwa is a mother of five. After living in Birere for 15 years, she watched in horror last December as her home was swallowed by fire.

“As usual, I woke up early and headed out to the market, and it wasn’t until around noon that I heard noises and saw people rushing toward my area,” Sikudjuwa says.

She says she joined the crowd, running toward her home.

“Goosebumps broke out all over my skin,” she says. “And a shiver erupted through my body as I was struck with the sad surprise of seeing my house in flames.”

Luckily, she says, no one was home when the house caught fire.

“But all of our clothes, utensils, foodstuffs and some of our money were completely consumed by fire and turned to ash. I felt like my whole life was ruined and I had to rebuild it from scratch,” she says through tear-filled eyes.

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Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Homes in the Birere slum are built haphazardly, and some sections of the neighborhood don’t have formal roads.

Neighbors say the fire started in a kitchen in a neighboring home when a woman left beans cooking unattended on a woodstove. Because the small homes are erected so close together, on that day, five houses caught fire and burned to ash.

The city of Goma has few emergency services, and Birere residents say response to fires is slow. To combat the problem, a group of young people in the neighborhood created a fire response service.

“I feel duty bound to help those in distress,” says Franck Eustache, one of the volunteer firefighters. “I cannot stand by and watch while people’s homes are being reduced to ashes in devastating fires.”

The volunteers range in age from 15 to 20. They borrow neighbors’ jugs to collect the sand and water, a scarce commodity, to prepare for future fires.

The group aims to save people and property, but they face tough odds.

Houses in Birere don’t comply with urban building standards.

I feel duty bound to help those in distress. I cannot stand by and watch while people’s homes are being reduced to ashes in devastating fires.

Overcrowding and violation of regulated lot sizes have contributed to the recent spate of fires in Birere, says Jeremie Mundama, head of Goma’s urban planning department, which oversees housing and building.

Mundama says a building should only occupy a sixth of its total lot. The minimum lot size is 15 meters by 20 meters, or 49 by 65 feet.

But the reality is different in Birere. Lot sizes can be as small as 10 meters by 12 meters (33 by 39 feet), he says, and buildings ─ sometimes more than one per lot ─ can take up that entire space.

“Sufficient space in a plot is required to provide a space where kids can play safely, a space that serves as a kitchen, a room to install the body shower and sometimes a garden populated with fruit trees in order to contribute to combating global warming,” Mundama says.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

A candle was the source of a fire that destroyed this house and the ones around it in Goma’s Birere slum, local people say.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Squeezed for space in their homes, some residents place kitchen supplies in the corners of bedrooms or living rooms.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Two sisters wash kitchen tools in front of their house in the Birere slum.

Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

People buy food at this small market in Birere. A popular meal here is fufu with small fish.

But local residents say those standards are a fiction for Birere. While there are few population statistics available for the city of Goma, Birere slum is home for the city’s most impoverished residents.

There is no record of the number of fires in Birere. One city employee who responds to fires estimates there were at least 10 fires in the first three months of 2016, with a single blaze destroying as many as 15 wooden homes.

Formal emergency services are extremely limited here.

The city of Goma has four cars that are equipped with small water tanks to combat fires, but two are out of service and in need of repair, according to a staff member from the city emergency services department, which is run out of the mayor’s office.

The employee, who asked that his name not be published for fear of being fired for not having clearance to speak to the press, said the challenges of fighting fires in Birere are many.

Goosebumps broke out all over my skin. And a shiver erupted through my body as I was struck with the sad surprise of seeing my house in flames.

The city’s only water source is Lake Kivu. Often during a fire emergency, he says, workers have to leave the scene to go and refill their small water tanks. And because fuel is often in short supply here too, he says that they are at times late in responding to fires because they have to stop to fill the city cars with fuel.

And, he says, there’s not enough equipment, including hoses and uniforms.

Birere’s young firefighters almost always beat city services to the scene of a blaze, the city employee says.

“There are a group of youths that we always meet at the scene of fire,” he says. “They are trying to end the fire even before our arrival. It almost always happens that way.”

And those youths face their own challenges.

“There is a serious risk, for instance, of being injured by a nail or getting hurt in the collapse of wooden boards and maybe getting one’s feet burned when unknowingly stepping on burning stuffs,” says Eustache, the volunteer firefighter. “It is a bullet we have to bite, and we need to make every effort to help our neighbors. We must do this because perhaps today it’s my neighbor and tomorrow it’s me.”

City investment in Birere could change everything, Mundama says.

“Of course, house fires will always break out unless there are financial resources necessary for the urbanization of the slum neighborhood of Birere. This is because the lack of roads and avenues makes access to the fire scene more difficult for emergency vehicles required to put out fires,” he says.

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Mariam Aboubakar Esperence, GPJ DRC

Some people whose homes were destroyed by fire can’t afford to build new wooden structures, so they fashion houses from used sheet metal.

Rachel Rugura, a Birere resident, says she doesn’t blame the city for a slow response to fires. The fires are the result of recklessness, she says.

“We, the people of Birere, sometimes have trouble admitting the truth. But the truth is that it is we who are responsible for fires that break out in our homes because of recklessness on the part of some of us who dare to leave burning candles or cooking food unattended inside the house, near a tarp or mattress,” she says.

Mundama says a survey of the Birere slum area is under way that will define property lines. That survey will be followed by an education campaign that he hopes will put an end to house fires in Birere.

“We are carrying out the mapping to give guidance for future land expansion and use,” he says. “We will make people aware of the need to apply for building permits, because no registration certificate will be issued unless the applicant has a building permit.”

In the meantime, residents continue to build highly flammable structures.

Sikudjuwa and her family rebuilt their home with help from neighbors who donated supplies.

“After going through a painful ordeal, God didn’t abandon us,” she says. “Some good Samaritans came to our rescue by giving us some tarps, sheets and wooden planks.”

Sikudjuwa says they soaked the planks in motor oil before constructing the new house.

Ndayaho Sylvestre translated the article from French.