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Atrocities are being committed against villagers in remote areas of Eastern Congo, where fighting between the Congolese army and the FDLR rebel group continues, said international agency Oxfam today. On a recent field visit to Lubero territory in North Kivu, where Oxfam has increased its emergency operations due to the renewed fighting, villagers reported that several thousand houses have been deliberately burned since military operations began in January. In the past week alone, at least 250 more homes were set ablaze.
Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who just came back from the conflict zone, said: "There is nowhere that is safe in the area I visited. Villagers are being forced to flee, some for the fifth or sixth time, losing family members on the way. Women are being raped and abused. People have been looted of the few possessions they owned, and have had their houses burned to the ground—all of this is happening as we speak, but the world is looking away.
"The stories I heard are heartbreaking. A woman told me how she witnessed a brutal gang rape of a neighbor by three armed men. She thinks the victim must have died afterwards. She ran away with her children, but her husband ran in another direction. She does not know where he is."
At least 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes since January. Oxfam is alarmed about the lack of protection of civilians in their home villages, but also about their safety in the towns they fled to, where armed men are also carrying out serious abuses.
There are not enough UN peacekeepers patrolling the areas affected by the new violence, leaving civilians feeling scared and vulnerable. While there are around 17,500 MONUC peacekeepers in the country, the force has very little visible presence in the areas to which people have fled.
"Communities tell us that they would like to see more peacekeepers patrolling the areas on foot, so that they feel safer," said Stoessel.
Oxfam called on MONUC to ensure that its resources are deployed in areas where they can best protect people at risk.
Oxfam this month significantly scaled up its life-saving emergency response by providing clean water, sanitation, and carrying out crucial hygiene promotion activities. Up to 150,000 additional people will benefit from this assistance.
With the military operations against the FDLR now expanding to South Kivu, Oxfam is also concerned for civilians there, with initial reports of thousands of people already fleeing in anticipation of increased violence and attacks. Oxfam has opened a new rapid response office in Bukavu, South Kivu, to be prepared for possible humanitarian fallout.
"What we have seen in North Kivu sets a terrible precedent for what may happen in South Kivu," said Stoessel. "Oxfam calls on all parties to the conflict, including the Government, to respect the life, dignity and property of civilians."