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Families flee as new waves of violence grip eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

By Oxfam
Tantine Kazigira, 25, stands in front of a tent at Mugunga Camp after fleeing her village in Masisi a few months ago. Photo by Colin DelFosse/Oxfam

New waves of violence in the resource-rich eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo have forced tens of thousands of people to flee for safety in recent days as rebels tightened their grip on the region, taking Goma, the strategically important capital of North Kivu province, on Tuesday. Since the start of the year, conflict has displaced more than three quarters of a million people in North and South Kivu provinces.

In April, former rebel fighters, who had been integrated into the Congolese army, mutinied. Dubbing themselves M23, or Mouvement 23, they took control of an area close to the borders of Rwanda and Uganda. When the Congolese army called up troops from across the region to quell the rebellion, that deployment left a security vacuum, prompting other rebel groups and militia to reassert their control.

Now, caught in the crossfire, civilians face appalling abuse at the hands of multiple armed groups. One town—Kashuga in northern Masisi—was attacked 12 times between April and July. In a new report, Commodities of War, Oxfam has documented how these waves of conflict have affected more than 760,000 people so far this year.

“Ruthless militias and government troops are both mercilessly exploiting local communities to help fund their war,” said Elodie Martel, Oxfam’s associate country director.  Forced labor and recruitment, illegal taxation, and pillaging are all tactics in this conflict, along with rape, kidnap, and murder.

“These armed men enter our homes and demand money. If you don’t give it, they will kill you,” said one man from Fizi in South Kivu.

“Men no longer walk around this village since they are the ones who are taken, mostly,” added a woman from Kalehe in South Kivu.

As insecurity and uncertainty mount, the pressure on people is growing.

“More than 50,000 people have fled camps and homes since yesterday and are in dire need of shelter, water, and food,” said Tariq Riebl on Monday. Riebl is Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator in Goma, the threatened capital of North Kivu and one of Congo’s larger cities around which cluster camps for displaced people. “Families have been split up overnight and people are desperately going between sites trying to find loved ones. If fighting intensifies further, there are very few places people can go for safety.”

Oxfam is aiming to reach about 230,000 people affected by this new crisis and since July has been responding to the needs of families in three camps near Goma. As of Tuesday the organization had helped 123,000 with clean water, sanitation services, and protection support. And public health teams have launched education campaigns to reduce the risk that waterborne diseases, such as cholera, could spread. But the largest of the camps, Kanyaruchina, where Oxfam has been building 700 latrines and 120 bathing stalls, is now deserted after people were forced to flee again.

For people of the eastern provinces, the violence is a grim reminder of how weak Congo’s national justice system is. Coupled with a lack of state authority and an ill-trained and poorly paid army, the consequence of that weakness has been decades of sporadic conflict triggered in part by ethnic tensions and disputes over land and resources. The danger and volatility make it very difficult for people to earn a living and have pulled many deeper into poverty.

“This war brings us extreme poverty and leave many killed,” a woman from Rutshuru in North Kivu told Oxfam. “Children no longer go to school and people flee to zones that are somehow safe. Those who return to their village to work their land to provide for their families are killed during clashes, or raped when a woman or girl is alone in the field.”

Oxfam is calling for an immediate halt to the fighting so that humanitarian aid can reach more civilians, especially those who have been displaced.