GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Civilians in eastern Congo face an increased risk of rape and forced labor as a result of internationally backed military operations against rebel groups, according to new research released today by aid agency Oxfam.
The survey of 816 people living in 24 communities in North and South Kivu revealed that 60 percent of those surveyed feel less safe than last year, with women and boys feeling particularly at risk. The survey covered areas affected by the Amani Leo (‘Peace Today’) offensive – supported by the UN – against the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and other rebel groups.
Some 75 percent of women surveyed said that they felt in more danger than a year ago, with this rising to 99 percent in the parts of South Kivu at the centre of Amani Leo operations. Likewise, 65 percent of boys surveyed said they were less safe, with this rising to 100 percent in areas where operations were ongoing. Women said that rape had increased in 20 of the 24 communities surveyed, while boys said schools were often raided to provide forced labor.
Respondents in 19 out of 24 communities said that despite the offensive the FDLR and other militias were still responsible for extreme acts of violence including rape and the burning of villages. In some areas the offensive had led to increasingly brutal FDLR reprisal attacks on civilians.
The Congolese army was also identified as a main perpetrator, with soldiers a threat to civilians in 23 of the 24 communities surveyed. Although 11 communities mentioned examples of soldiers protecting people, such as by conducting night patrols and securing the release of people abducted by the FDLR, only one community had faced no abuses from soldiers. In some areas, crimes committed by the army were so extreme – killing, torture, burning houses and gang rape – as to be indistinguishable from the worst excesses of the FDLR. Three quarters of communities reported looting, with soldiers taking everything from cash and mobile phones to livestock and food. A separate survey in Kabare, South Kivu, found that 15 army checkpoints in the area may be making as much as $18,000 a month through extortion.
Despite the anger felt at such abuses, many civilians also said the Congolese army lived in pitiful conditions – often deployed without rations, and wages paid irregularly or stolen by commanders. “It’s shameful for a government soldier to have to beg, so instead they steal,” said one respondent. All communities said that if soldiers were paid on time it would improve the security of civilians. The Congolese government introduced a zero tolerance policy for abuses by its troops last July, but as the survey reveals, people still feel there is widespread impunity and no functioning system of justice or reparation.
Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in Congo, said:
“The military operations are having a devastating effect on Congolese communities, who are being attacked from all sides. The army is supposed to protect people, but until real root and branch military reform takes place the risks this offensive poses to communities are just too high. Deploying troops without pay or rations virtually guarantees abuse against civilians, and turning a blind eye while soldiers commit crimes just encourages others to commit more. It’s clear that those affected by these abuses are crying out for army reform.”
Such behavior is extremely alarming given the recent calls for United Nations peacekeepers to leave the country. The UN Security Council will review the current configuration of troops this October. Oxfam said that while peacekeepers are not a long-term solution, they are still needed until the Congolese army can offer better protection to civilians.
The results of the survey suggested that the operations have had mixed results in addressing the threat of the FDLR. In some areas FDLR attacks were now less frequent but increasingly brutal when they happened. In the Petit Nord region the FDLR justified burning down a village “because you chased us away.” In the northern part of South Kivu abductions have become so common that entire villages were said to have relocated. Communities spoke of increasing instances of women being abducted, repeatedly raped and then only released after a ransom is paid. One community reported 16 girls abducted and raped by the FDLR in three months.
Three quarters of communities surveyed were against continuing the Amani Leo military action, instead calling for political solutions such as integrating militia fighters into the army, and opening up political space in Rwanda to allow FDLR rebels not involved in the genocide to return.
The offensive is also having a grave impact on local youth and education. The survey found that sections of the army often targeted schools to find boys able to porter their goods. Classes have been suspended or schools have had to relocate to reduce the risk to students. Those who tried to resist faced beatings and even murder. Boys said they were also frequently accused of being militia fighters, with simply sporting a tattoo enough to get young men beaten up, arrested or even murdered as a suspected rebel.