'If only the world would not look away'

By Marcel Stoessel

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Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo, recently traveled through the war-torn eastern region of the country where the needs of the people are enormous.

It was in late March that I started receiving increasingly worrying reports about alleged atrocities in remote areas of North Kivu province. Military operations by the Congolese army against a rebel group known as FDLR—Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda—had continued (Rwandan troops deployed in a joint operation with the Congolese army withdrew in February); and reports suggested that the offensive was likely to expand to South Kivu.

I heard about reprisal attacks, the burning of houses, sexual violence, looting, and people being prevented from accessing their fields—their only source of food. Many of these reports were coming from areas where Oxfam teams had begun carrying out life-saving work with a local partner, helping to provide safe drinking water, clean latrines, and public health education.

I could not believe what I was reading: Up to 250,000 people reported to have left their homes since January.

Some of our senior staff, as skeptical as me, went to the field and came back with a clear report: It is true, they told me; it's just not on TV yet. Our immediate response was to scale up our emergency operations in South Lubero, which is in North Kivu. Water trucks were sent to provide clean water to displaced placed and the families who hosted them. Hygiene items were distributed, and health promoters were deployed to help prevent the outbreak of epidemics.

We also decided to open an emergency response office in the neighboring province of South Kivu where we were getting reports of another military build-up, indicating that a similar tragedy could happen there.

A few days later, I was on a plane crossing this vast country towards the conflict zone to support our field staff and to get a first-hand view of what was happening. After two flights and a trip by road I finally arrived in Lubero. The government representative there told me people needed urgent help.

I continued by road southwards into what the United Nations called the "red zone"—an area where military escorts are recommended. Oxfam refuses such escorts, due to concerns that we may be perceived as supporting a particular side in any conflict. It was one day after an attack on the town of Luofu, where 255 houses were burned to the ground.

We met some displaced people on the road, who were fleeing the fighting, carrying the few possessions they could take with them. They were exhausted and desperate. They were heading to a town called Kirumba, which was also our destination. Several thousand people had gathered there for an Oxfam emergency distribution of essential hygiene items.

Through an interpreter, I heard some of their stories. One woman witnessed another being gang-raped by three armed men. The victim died later, the witness told me. The witness—an old woman—ran away from her village with her children, but had become separated from her husband, who fled in another direction. She told me the few items she had managed to carry with her were taken away by soldiers.

As the Oxfam distribution of hygiene items continued, we travelled further south to a town called Kanyabayonga, where Oxfam was distributing water. The town's population has more than doubled during the recent fighting, and Oxfam is trucking in 180,000 liters of clean water every day.

Village chiefs gathered to tell me their stories. Since the start of the military operations, civilians are seen with suspicion by both warring sides, and accused of being collaborators. People have had no choice but to leave their villages—but they also have had nowhere safe to go.

They arrived in Kanyabayonga, they said, terrified, tired, and in need of protection and help. The fighting had not stopped. One day before we arrived, the FDLR rebels had attacked Kanyabayonga itself.

People were living with host families—in some cases, up to five other families in a house. I tried to imagine how it would be—no clean water, only basic squat latrines, with little money and a war going on around me.

But what really broke my heart was to hear about the systematic burning of houses in these remote areas of North Kivu province. Villagers reported that many thousands of homes had been burned to the ground.

There are about 17,500 UN peacekeepers stationed in Congo—but with little visible presence here to give these vulnerable people any sense of safety. People I spoke to wanted to see UN peacekeepers patrol on foot, to be present in their communities. To protect them.

Now I'm back in the eastern provincial capital, Goma, where Oxfam coordinates its emergency operations in Congo. I am happy that we have managed to scale up our emergency work in South Lubero. More help will come, if the security situation permits. If only the world would not look away.