Dr Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon, has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and with it, comes the world’s scrutiny of what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The world is now starting to take notice of the conflict that has ravaged the area for decades and the possible catastrophic effects this could have on the region’s fight against a growing Ebola pandemic.
When Mukwege told the world how he lives at his hospital, guarded by United Nations Peacekeepers, the world sat up and listened. One of the reasons he chose to live at the hospital was to prevent further attempts at killing him. In stark contrast however, is the fact that Ebola aid teams not far away in the east are facing a terribly contagious virus amidst the ongoing sound of gunfire.
The region is vast. Over the decades various groups have taken up arms either to unseat a president or to hunt down suspects connected to the genocide that took place in neighbouring Rwanda. Other groups are simply large-scale thieves, trying to gain a piece of the trillions of dollars’ worth of mineral wealth in the Congo. Over time the groups have splintered, leaving many in the population unsure of who has committed the latest attack or atrocity.
One direct consequence of all this violence has manifested in the number of women, girls and babies brought to Mukwege’s hospital, all victims of some of the most brutal sexual violence imaginable. Attacks can range from women raped with the barrel of a gun to genitals that have been shot or burnt.
The emergence in August of an Ebola outbreak has served only to inflame tensions in what is already a jittery area. It has created a situation which most health workers have never had to deal with before. So far 140 Ebola cases have been confirmed, including 76 deaths.
Fear has led to rumours and in many instances, health workers are attacked by villagers as they try to implement practices that could save lives. Some health workers have even been attacked while trying to administer vaccinations to parts of the population.
Amongst all the confusion generated by the violence, some patients who are believed to have come into contact with the virus have fled the area. This has led to the World Health Organisation (WHO) openly admitting its concern about the virus potentially reaching “red zones” – areas that are so volatile that health workers simply cannot operate in these places.
"It's a totally unprecedented situation... potentially explosive," said Anne Rimoin, an associate professor of epidemiology at UCLA. Rimoin directs teams of researchers in the Ebola outbreak zone.
The ongoing threat of attack means aid workers can only conduct their operations during the day. Teams are protected by armed escorts, usually UN peacekeepers, but everyone scrambles to get off the road before darkness sets in.
The threat of attack means Ebola efforts are limited to daylight hours as teams and their armed escorts, usually UN peacekeepers but also Congolese security forces, hurry to get off the roads before dark.
Some local authorities are in contact with rebel leaders. Consequently, they are negotiating with fighters to allow health teams urgent access into dangerous regions, as any Ebola victim left untracked could cause a new round of cases.
The concern from the international community is growing. Just last week Red Cross workers were attacked and badly hurt. As a result, the UN Security Council called for an end to hostilities as it prepared to visit the Congo and discuss, among other things, the fighting that has displaced about one million people in the Ebola-affected North Kivu province alone.
"An extremely challenging and dangerous environment," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the council. He then went on to describe some of the attacks that have taken place since the outbreak began: a "full-scale" assault on a Congolese military base, ambushes of UN peacekeepers, a rocket explosion and an attack on the town at the centre of Ebola efforts. This attack killed at least 18 people and shut down health work for days.
Friday's announcement of the Nobel prize, the first in Congo's history, brought a new round of global calls to end the sprawling conflict and to allow health workers to perform their duties without fear of violence.
"A durable peace," the UN’s secretary-general's special envoy to Congo called it, while congratulating Mukwege on his win.
According to the Associated Press, achieving this peace will not be a simple or easy process. Even as the Congolese government tried to claim some credit for the efforts of the Nobel prize winner, outgoing President Joseph Kabila wants the UN’s peacekeepers to prepare for withdrawal.