Desperate: That's the word Oxfam is using to describe the humanitarian situation facing many of the 800,000 people the United Nations says have been forced from their homes in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo since the start of 2009. That's when the Congolese military began a UN-backed offensive against a Rwandan rebel group known as FDLR, or the Forces Démocratique de Libération du Rwanda.
Many of the displaced people are now sheltering with host families and often crowded into single-room houses with poor access to clean water and sanitation. To help meet their needs, Oxfam has set up a rapid response office in Bukavu, a city in the province of South Kivu, and is scaling up its work in North Kivu province.
Together with a local organization, Oxfam is now trucking 200,000 liters of clean water each day into major population centers, such as Lubero in North Kivu, where many displaced people have sought refuge. The organizations are also working to rehabilitate the water systems in those communities and Oxfam is distributing essential household items such as soap and buckets.
Though Oxfam is now helping 130,000 additional people, insecurity is making the delivery of this life-saving aid difficult in some areas. Fighters have cut off the roads to places such as Walikale in North Kivu and also to parts of South Kivu. Oxfam is calling on all parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and let aid through.
The harsh conditions many displaced people now face follow on the heels of the escalating violence they have endured in the months since the military offensive began. In a recent survey Oxfam conducted, villagers recounted the horrors of rape, torture, forced labor, and reprisal attacks. One woman told Oxfam she had been raped nine times. Other people talked about underground rooms where villagers were beaten and plunged in barrels of salt water. Residents of one community said their entire village emptied out at night, with everyone preferring to sleep in the fields rather than in their own homes. It was safer in the open, they said.
Who is attacking the civilians in Congo? In the survey, which included nearly 600 interviews, villagers reported that both the Congolese army and members of the FDLR were responsible for the atrocities. Earlier this year, members of militia and a rebel group were hastily integrated into the Congolese army, which has led to human rights abuses. Civilians surveyed said that one of the solutions to the trauma they have endured would be to improve the discipline, pay, and training of the Congolese army many of whose members—especially those newly integrated—have not been paid. As a consequence, extortion is widespread.
Role of the peacekeeping force
The UN's peacekeeping force—known as MONUC and the largest of its kind in the world—has a broad mandate in this conflict. While MONUC is reportedly providing rations and logistical support to the Congolese army, Oxfam maintains that the force's main priority should be to protect civilians, and it's concerned that there are not enough safeguards in place for that protection. Oxfam is calling on MONUC to set conditions for its involvement in these operations which, at the moment, are having a devastating impact on civilians.
For example, Oxfam says that MONUC should ensure that the Congolese government is taking clear steps to minimize the impact of this military initiative on civilians by not deploying officers with a documented record of human rights violations and by punishing violations committed by its own forces. The peacekeeping force should withhold its support of the operation if abuses continue, says Oxfam.
The organization also says that the international community needs to recognize that military action alone will not provide the answer for the insecurity that has plagued eastern Congo for so long. In the Oxfam survey, the vast majority of communities affected by the FDLR called for peaceful dialogue, and only two favored forced disarmament. Time and investment need to be put into non-military methods of disarming militia. And there needs to be a widespread recognition that sustainable peace will come to Congo only when the root causes of the conflict have been addressed.