Sister Maria Concetta walks out of the labour room with a newborn baby in her arms and rushes through the corridors in search of a bed. The child is one of over 20,000 she has helped to deliver since she started working at the Zongo hospital near the Oubangui River, which flows between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Sister Maria is an 80-year-old Italian nun who arrived in the DRC in 1959, one year before its independence. Since 1984, she has worked as a midwife in Zongo at the hospital, which is run by the Congregation of the daughters of Saint-Joseph of Genoni from Italy.
Sister Maria moves around the hospital as if she were 30 years younger, and always with a smile and a joke. She sometimes works around the clock to help women give birth, including refugees from CAR, and tells me that she has witnessed several wars.
“It is now the third time we assist refugees here because of political complications in Bangui,” she says. “We have always helped sick refugees at our hospital, but also welcomed them in our kindergarten, primary, secondary and technical schools.”
During our conversation, Sister Maria admits that she nearly gave up once.
“My worst memory is the war because of destruction. I stayed locked into my room for three hours with a three-month-old orphan in my arms. A soldier threatened me. He pointed the gun at me and asked me to put the baby on the floor. Then they left. They looted everything.”
After that, she fled to Bangui, but was unable to forget the mothers she had left behind in Zongo. “The authorities begged us to come back. So we spent two months sleeping on the floor and, slowly, we started the work again [at the hospital]. We were eating what the mothers could give us. We spent a week with only one pineapple. I said that the devil had passed by and it was a moment of darkness. But I started again my work with joy and forgiveness.”
“Being a refugee is painful,” Sister Maria tells me. “When something is missing and you are in exile, it is an even bigger suffering.”
Zongo is the referral hospital for nearly 15,000 people who live in Mole refugee camp. When they can’t be treated at the health centre there and require surgery or long-term treatment, UNHCR transfers them to Zongo. Refugee women are also transferred to the hospital if there are complications when they give birth. The nuns accept everyone – to them, there is no difference between patients, even those who can’t pay.
“Being a refugee is painful,” Sister Maria tells me. “They are not at home. We have to understand them. When something is missing but you are at home, it’s fine, but when something is missing and you are in exile, it is an even bigger suffering.”