Millions left at the mercy of militias and armed forces across eastern Congo, Oxfam warns

By swheeler

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More than one million people are at risk of militia, rebel and army attacks as fighters begin to position themselves in and around the provincial city of Goma with little or no protection from the government or UN peacekeepers international agency Oxfam warned today.

Displacement camps are becoming increasingly under threat as different rebel groups appear to be moving towards sites around the city. The agency fears civilians could get caught up in attacks targeting displacement camps and more than one million will be trying to find safety in an area overflowing with soldiers and militias.  

If fighting breaks out clashes could take place in a number of areas surrounding the city. Oxfam said the UN peacekeeping mission should urgently patrol high-risk areas, especially at night around camps and villages when civilians are particularly at risk of attack.

“People are scared and many have gathered their belongings in anticipation of a big explosion of violence,” said Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator Tariq Riebl. “There is now a real risk of war on top of the daily violence and abuse people already face. It will be catastrophic for Congolese people who are already targets for extortion, rape and torture from more than 25 rebel groups across the east.

“Millions of people are trapped in and around Goma and towns across the east with no way of escaping what could be a ruthless and bloody confrontation.”

In and around Masisi, 80 kms north-west of Goma, another catastrophe is well underway where approximately 250,000 people have fled for their lives in the past month alone as villages have been burnt and camps attacked.

A remote and volatile area with no tarmac roads and limited phone network, humanitarian agencies are unable to assess the scale of the crisis and provide sufficient vital life-saving aid.

According to local organizations working in the area, at least 17 villages in Masisi territory have been burnt and looted in the past two weeks and more than 20 camps where tens of thousands of displaced people are sheltering are now under the control of armed groups known to murder, rape and exploit civilians.

At least four armed groups control routes in an out of Masisi, making it almost impossible for people to leave the area. Many are believed to have fled into Masisi town or scattered into the bush away from major roads. More than 8,000 families are currently sheltering in churches and schools in the town, with little access to safe water, healthcare or medicine.  

Masisi is a key strategic area, vital for control over lucrative mineral and trade routes. A recent Oxfam assessment found market towns in the region have been repeatedly attacked by numerous armed groups, including the Congolese army, fighting for control of markets and taxation of traders. Farmers have to pay money or food to local “Mayi Mayi” militia to access their fields, and armed groups have taken food from the fields of local farmers to feed their own fighters and families.

The UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, has bases in the territory but communities say they have not seen any patrols in recent weeks.

“We can't shout loudly enough,” said Riebl. “This violence has to end. It has caused decades of suffering and grinding poverty. All those at peace talks in Kampala must do all they can to bring an end to this brutal madness. Failed agreements and half-hearted negotiations are simply not enough in the face of a humanitarian tragedy of this scale. The AU and the UN must step up its leadership of negotiations and make sure a timetable for a long-lasting solution is agreed."

Notes to editors

Oxfam has been providing life-saving aid in three camps around Goma since July, piping and trucking clean water to people who had fled the fighting. The agency has built latrines and installed sanitation services, as well as providing cash distributions to help people buy food. Oxfam also works in several areas across North and South Kivu, providing water and sanitation, and helping communities get their rights to adequate protection

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