By Maria Caspani
LONDON (AlertNet) Â? Clashes between soldiers and rebels in eastern Congo are boosting the danger that women are raped and boys forced into slave labour, Oxfam research has shown.
In April, the British-based aid agency interviewed 816 people in the Democratic Republic of CongoÂ?s North and South Kivu provinces; 60 percent said they felt less safe than a year earlier, largely because government soldiers were now behaving as badly as rebels.
The area has been stricken by shifting conflicts for years but life seems to have got even tougher since the start of 2010 when the army began an offensive to disarm exiled Rwandan Hutu rebels who have destabilised the region for years.
Â?The worst effect of military deployment is the lack of safety experienced by the population. People clearly told us, Â?we donÂ?t feel safe hereÂ?,Â? OxfamÂ?s Congo country director Marcel Stoessel told AlertNet by telephone.
This yearÂ?s clashes have forced some 200,000 people to flee their homes, leading to a worsening humanitarian crisis with civilians losing access to fields, livelihoods, education and medical care.
Three quarters of all women questioned Â? and 99 percent of those in frontline areas Â? said life was more dangerous now than a year ago. Nearly everywhere, reports of sexual violence at the hands of armed men increased.
Two thirds of males aged 15 to 24 said they felt overwhelmingly under threat during the past 12 months. Boys reported a number of schools being raided by soldiers who use them to carry supplies, set up and clean army camps, cut wood and fetch water.
Older men, however, were more tolerant to army abuses, saying it was worth putting up with the looting and theft if it meant being rid of the more extreme violence and the abductions carried out by the rebels.
THREAT FROM ARMY GROWS
The survey stressed the growing role of soldiers in violence on civilians.
Nearly half of communities questioned said soldiers had also protected civilians, for example by conducting night patrols, but only one community had escaped troops stealing everything from cash to food, water and cell phones.
Despite anger at this, people said soldiers had to be paid. Payments
are often delayed sometimes by months while troops are deployed in remote areas with little or no food.
Â?This virtually guarantees abuse against civilians. ItÂ?s clear that those affected by such abuses are crying out for army reform,Â? Stoessel said in a statement.
According to the findings, operations against the Rwandan FDLR rebels have had mixed results. Three quarters of people surveyed were against continuing the offensive, calling instead for a political solution.
In nearly half of communities, people asked for more U.N. peacekeepers. The Kivus currently host 18,000 U.N. soldiers, for a population of 10 million.
CONGOLESE Â?FIRST RESPONDERSÂ? TO EMERGENCIES
Despite cases where abused women were rejected by their husbands and families, Stoessel said Congolese people are extremely resilient.
Â?They are the first humanitarian responders. Displaced people donÂ?t normally flee to camps but to family units they are sometimes not even remotely related to, or they find shelter in complete strangersÂ? households,Â? he told AlertNet.
He said Oxfam and its partners were helping nearly half a million people in the region and that aid workers had to make Â?very difficult decisionsÂ? every day, to balance the assistance to those in need with their own security.
Â?The absolute absence of any rule of law makes everyone with a gun very dangerous,Â? he said.