GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Incidents of forced labor, rape, and widespread brutality have increased since the latest outbreak of fighting according to assessments carried out by international agency Oxfam over the past week, as armed men from all sides prey upon those who have sought 'sanctuary' from the fighting in North Kivu.
In camps across North Kivu women have been raped while searching for food and firewood and forced into doing humiliating tasks at gunpoint. Children, separated from their families, are recruited into armed groups.
"People have told us that they feel like they are the living dead and that their lives no longer have any value. The world needs to show them that that is not true, by redoubling their efforts to secure a ceasefire and by providing immediate additional support to the UN peacekeepers. It is clear that hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Congo are not getting the protection they desperately need," said Juliette Prodhan, head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some findings from the assessments include:
- In Kanyabayonga—which lies 30 kilometers north of the conflict's frontline—increasing numbers of armed men are creating havoc, with rape cases spiraling and stealing, looting and harassment becoming commonplace. It is reported that armed men are stealing money, food and even jerry cans of water, leaving people with nothing. Over 66 cases of rape were treated in nearby clinics last week, but the real number is likely to be much higher, as many people do not seek treatment or report their rapes due to the stigma faced by victims of this crime. When Oxfam teams last visited in May there were half a dozen cases of rape in a week.
- In the Kibati area, and further south towards Sake and Minova, forced labor and sexual violence are plaguing the communities, with residents forced to carry water and firewood for armed men. Women are routinely threatened by rape in Kibati and have been attacked when seeking food in the banana fields or collecting firewood. Women in other camps south of Goma report similar problems. In one camp, there is no plastic sheeting left on any of the residents' makeshift shelters, as all of it has been stolen by armed groups.
- Children are arriving in camps and communities alone because they became separated from family members as they fled. These children are vulnerable to forced recruitment by armed groups, and other abuses. There have been three reported cases of forced recruitment of young boys in Kibati, and in Sake and Minova many people are fleeing highland villages in the surrounding mountains because of this threat. Thirty seven children were recruited into armed groups in Rutshuru town last week, according to child protection agencies.
- In Kanyabayonga, many people are forced to keep running, with thousands heading further north to find a respite from violence. Most of the displaced in this area are from the center of the fighting in Kiwanja and Rushuru.
"There is nowhere to hide from eastern Congo's brutal violence; it follows people to places of supposed sanctuary and safety. With increased reports of rape, forced labor, and harassment by armed men in the camps and communities, it is no surprise that biggest priority amongst people is security. Many have fled for the second, third, or even fourth time. They are sick of the violence and want it to end," said Prodhan.
Oxfam is calling for immediate additional military support for the UN's peacekeeping force, MONUC, to help stop the violence, provide security, protect civilians and allow aid agencies to provide help to those that desperately need it. As Oxfam's assessments show, the peacekeepers are clearly struggling to keep the long-suffering people of Congo safe.
Redeploying troops from elsewhere in the Kivu provinces and eastern Congo is not an option as other parts of the region are also insecure and in danger of all-out conflict. To do so would leave civilians elsewhere vulnerable to attack. In Dungu in the northwest Orientale Province thousands have been forced to flee an upsurge in fighting, including 57,000 in recent attacks on 1 and 2 November.
"There appears to be no urgency in the international community's talks on the crisis, but this is a deeply urgent situation. The world is failing in its responsibility to protect Congo's innocent civilians," said Prodhan.
Deployment of extra troops must be combined with sustained diplomatic pressure to achieve a political solution and address the underlying causes of the conflict.
Oxfam is calling on the UN's special envoy Olusegun Obasanjo to unify peace efforts and find a sustainable solution to this protracted conflict.