GOMA, DRC — Rape, forced labor, reprisal attacks and torture are surging in eastern Congo as the result of the recent UN-backed military offensive, according to a new in-depth survey of nearly 600 villagers carried out by international aid agency Oxfam.
The survey of 569 civilians living in 20 conflict-ridden communities across North and South Kivu shows that the Congolese government's military operations against the rebel Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) are resulting in escalating insecurity for civilians, who are being attacked by all sides. Many in the Congolese army are committing abuses, with the FDLR increasing its retaliation against civilians for the offensive, the agency said.
Some 800,000 people have been displaced in North and South Kivu since the offensive was launched at the beginning of the year, according to the UN.
"The war is far from over for ordinary civilians. Over 80 percent of the people we interviewed said that security is worse now compared to a year ago," said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "The offensive against the FDLR was supposed to bring peace to eastern Congo, but our survey shows people are living in constant fear of violent attack. This suffering is not inevitable. It is happening because world leaders have decided that collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for removing the FDLR. But as the people we met can testify, that price is far too high."
Half the communities surveyed said sexual violence had increased dramatically since the offensive began in January, and it was found to be widespread in all communities. Women were at most risk of sexual violence, but cases of children, some as young as four, being brutally raped were reported in more than half of the communities. Three of the 20 communities reported rape against men, including eight recent cases of male rape in one community in South Kivu.
A quarter of the communities spoke of torture. People were reportedly being buried up to their necks in holes in the ground by the FDLR until they agreed to pay a 'fine' in exchange for their release, with a few communities speaking of underground rooms where people are beaten and plunged in barrels of salt water. In addition, other militias were reportedly carrying out torture, as well as looting and child recruitment.
Abuses by large sections of the Congolese army were reported in every community. Half of communities spoke of forced labor, with mostly men and adolescent boys made to carry goods for the army. Communities in North Kivu reported particular aggression by newly integrated units made up of ex-rebel soldiers from the disbanded Mai Mai and the National Congress for People's Defense (CNDP), who have not yet been paid and justify extortion as "contributions" to their up-keep. In North Kivu, the Congolese army was identified as the main perpetrator of sexual violence.
All communities with an FDLR presence reported an upsurge in attacks on civilians by the militia in response to the recent government military operations, with one group describing the operations as "like waking a sleeping devil." In Mwenga region, South Kivu, communities taking part in an earlier survey in March 2009 had reported that violence by the FDLR had diminished, but just two months later they were reporting high levels of death threats, sexual violence and violent looting. People had reportedly been killed for saying the rebel group should return to Rwanda. Many of these villages have now been abandoned.
All communities feared reprisal attacks, and looting and extortion were widespread. Both the FDLR and large parts of the Congolese army were reported to force civilians to hand-over money and possessions. When opposing forces arrived, the civilians were then branded as collaborators for this and subjected to attack.
All communities surveyed asked to be protected better by the Congolese army and peacekeepers. More foot patrols by MONUC peacekeepers were requested, especially in the fields and small roads where violence was a great threat. The majority of those surveyed supported dialogue and peaceful repatriation of foreign armed groups, and in four communities, respondents went so far as to call for the military action against the FDLR to be abandoned. Only two communities supported forced disarmament.
"The results of this survey should be a wake-up call to those in the UN Security Council supporting the current military offensive, said Stoessel. "In only five communities, people said the Congolese army was keeping them safe. Many interviewees said they feared the army and the FDLR equally. The Congolese people need an army that protects on them, not preys on them. Oxfam welcomes the Congolese government's recent announcement that there will be zero tolerance of abuses in the army, and urges them to keep to this bold commitment. The peacekeeping force should withhold support from the operation if abuses continue or go unpunished, and must insist that known human rights abusers are removed from participating in the operations."