Border friction in DR Congo on anniversary of Ebola outbreak

More than 1,800 lives have been lost in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since Ebola broke out on 1 August, 2018.

A healthcare worker in the Democratic Republic of Congo at a Ebola treatment facility. Picture: @WHOAFRO/Twitter.

GOMA - An Ebola epidemic in eastern DR Congo marked its first anniversary on Thursday with two more cases in the densely-populated frontier city of Goma and accusations by Kinshasa that Rwanda had rushed to shutter its border in response to the crisis.

The two new cases of infection are the wife and baby of a man who had died of Ebola on Wednesday, health workers said.

More than 1,800 lives have been lost in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since Ebola broke out on 1 August, 2018.

Fears that the disease could spread to neighbouring countries have mounted since mid-July, when the first of two fatalities occurred in Goma, a transport hub lying adjacent to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi's office on Thursday said Rwanda had made a "unilateral decision" to close its border - a move, it said, that was reversed eight hours later.

Goma, which has a population of more than two million, and Gisenyi, a city of more than 85,000, have close ties that depend on open borders.

Many people have jobs on the other side of the border while others have homes or put their children in schools in the neighbouring city.


An AFP reporter in Goma and a resident in Gisenyi said at mid-morning that the frontier had been closed. In Rwanda, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "it is closed," without giving further details.

But the Rwandan health ministry later said the border had never been closed.

There had only been a "traffic slowdown... as measures were put in place to reinforce screening procedures and public safety at entry points," it said in a statement.

Health Minister Diane Gashumba told journalists, "I talked with my counterpart, the DRC Minister of Health, and clarified that the border is open and should remain open."

Amid shouts of joy, Rwandans from Gisenyi and Congolese on the other side started crossing the border again late Thursday, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

"I have been waiting since 7:00 am," Antoinette Zeyimana, a Rwandan saleswoman, told AFP.

Health experts told journalists at the UN that closing a border was counterproductive and can send an epidemic "underground."

"If you start making people terrified, you close things down, they run away, they hide and they spread disease," Margaret Harris, spokeswoman for the WHO Ebola team in the DR Congo, said via videolink from Beni.

Congolese authorities had assured Rwandan frontier officials that hand-washing and temperature-sensing measures would be strengthened at the border to identify suspicious cases, according to one DRC immigration source.