NAIROBI (AlertNet) – As East African leaders meet in Uganda to discuss the escalating violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Oxfam has warned that hundreds of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Oxfam’s local partners said violence, displacement and child recruitment have increased dramatically in Congo’s mineral-rich North and South Kivu provinces, long a tinderbox of regional ethnic and political tensions, since the formation of the M23 rebel group in April.
“Vast swathes of the east have descended into chaos with no government or security presence. People have been abandoned to killing, rape, looting and extortion,” Oxfam’s associate country director Elodie Martel said in a statement.
“They are fleeing for their lives and very little is being done to help.”
More than 470,000 people have fled their homes in the past four months, with 420,000 displaced internally and 51,000 crossing into Uganda and Rwanda as refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
For the first time since the end of 2009, the number of displaced within Congo is now more than 2 million, Oxfam said.
Aid agencies cannot access many of the displaced because of the ongoing insecurity.
Regional leaders of 11 African countries are holding an International Conference of the Great Lakes Region from Aug. 7 to 8. The meeting is expected to decide to set up an international peacekeeping force to restore stability to the region.
The United Nations already has more than 17,000 troops in Congo as part of its peacekeeping mission. But the force is stretched thin across a nation the size of Western Europe and already struggles to fulfil its mandate of protecting civilians.
U.N. helicopter gunships frequently back up outgunned government forces but even that firepower failed to prevent rebels from taking several towns in July.
No details have been given on the new peacekeeping plan but, in theory, the force would target all rebels, including the anti-Kinshasa M23 and Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) Kigali says are a threat.
The Rwandan government denies allegations by the United Nations and Congo that it is supporting the Tutsi-dominated M23, which includes hundreds of mutineers from the Congolese army. The name M23 comes from a March 2009 peace deal that ended a previous Tutsi-led rebellion in North Kivu which the insurgents say was not honoured.
Eastern Congo's enduring conflict, which has killed, maimed and displaced several million civilians over nearly two decades, has its roots in Tutsi-Hutu ethnic and political enmities dating back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Many domestic and foreign armed groups are active in eastern Congo, including Mai Mai militias, rebels from Uganda and Burundi, and the FDLR - which includes remnants of the Rwandan Hutu extremists who carried out the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
LOOTING AND KILLING
The upsurge in fighting has drawn government troops to reinforce North Kivu’s capital city Goma, leaving a security vacuum for armed groups to attack villages and displaced people’s settlements in the Kivus, aid groups said.
Armed groups loot people’s homes and steal their crops when they seize control of their villages, and kill those who belong to ethnic groups that are seen as hostile, UNHCR said.
Children are being forcibly recruited by the militias to carry ammunition and fight, UNHCR said. Teenage boys fleeing into Uganda told the agency that armed men were blocking escape routes out of Congo.
Ongoing conflict is making it difficult for aid agencies to deliver aid to some remote areas, which frequently change hands.
“Worsening security is severely limiting our capacity to deliver assistance outside the established (displacement) camps,” UNHCR said.
Rebel groups are also charging people illegal taxes, making it difficult for goods to reach markets. In the M23-controlled town of Rutshuru in North Kivu, Oxfam said it costs $300 to drive a truck along the main road and $50 for a van.
“The lack of action to stop massacres and abuses against Congolese people is appalling,” said Martel.
“We should no longer be calling this a forgotten war. The realities of torture, rebel rule and absolute terror should be etched on every politician’s mind and be top of their agenda.”
The United Nation’s emergency relief coordinator, Valerie Amos, is currently in Congo, where she will visit North Kivu. She will travel to Rwanda, to visit Congolese refugees, on Aug. 9.