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The safety of civilians must come first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 23 Nov 2012 01:12 PM
Author: Paul O'Brien, Concern
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Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Paul O'Brien is Concern Worldwide's overseas director

Last week I saw a whole valley burn. From one village to the next, houses were systematically sent up in flames. From across the valley we heard gunshots and rocket propelled grenades for two successive days and nights. We watched in horror as entire families were forced to flee, their homes and their livelihoods destroyed. They travelled in different directions to seek refuge, many of them women and young children carrying their belongings in blankets.  I was in Masisi, in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo and what I witnessed there was very clearly the deliberate targeting of civilians by armed groups.

Nothing was done to stop this nightmare unfolding, despite the presence of MONUSCO peace-keeping forces, and Congolese FARDC troops. They were either unable or unwilling to intervene. The shock and horror I felt at these events have not been widely reflected across the global community. The rapidly escalating fighting has put DRC on the brink of a large scale humanitarian crisis yet has barely made a ripple with the media, in Ireland and abroad. Action is required now if Concern and fellow aid agencies are to secure safe access to, and protection of, the affected population. We had no choice but to evacuate all our international staff and all re-locatable national staff for their own safety, seriously hindering our ability to deliver assistance where it is most needed.

This latest conflict began in April of this year when a group calling itself “Mouvement du 23 Mars” or M23, defected from FARDC in response to what they perceived as the failure of the government to effectively implement the March 2009 peace agreement signed by the government and the CNDP (National Council for the Defence of the People). Fighting between M23 and FARDC has ensued, with the rebel forces taking control of Goma, the capital city of the North Kivu province this week. They have since captured Sake, to the West of Goma and are reported to be heading south to Bukavu. Other militia groups are taking advantage of the security vacuum created by the redeployment of Congolese troops to fight M23 elsewhere, and are strengthening their own positions by wreaking havoc on civilians throughout the Kivu provinces. The most immediate consequence is a mass displacement of people. The rampage we witnessed forced some 10,000 people to seek refuge in Masisi centre. An IDP camp in Kanyaruchinya was emptied of at least 60,000 people as M23 made their advance towards Goma. Since the beginning of this year 767,000 people in the region have left their homes as a direct result of the violence this year alone. OCHA now estimates there are some 2.4 million internally displaced people in DRC.

Displacement is not the only form of suffering being inflicted on populations in the affected areas. (A recent Oxfam report confirms that civilians are being purposely targeted and financially exploited by armed troops on all sides who are vying for control over local communities to extort money and goods from them.) Disturbing levels of human rights abuses are taking place. Congolese civilians are being subjected to violent abuse on a massive scale, including rape, kidnap and murder.

The people of Eastern DRC have had to endure numerous conflicts between different militia groups since the mid-1990s. It is a long history of violence which has seen more than 500,000 women raped and 6 million people killed. Deeply unsettling reports of sexual violence in the region have been notable in recent years for their consistency. One third of the Eastern Congolese men surveyed recently admitted to committing sexual assault. Many of these men have themselves been the victims of violence, including sexual violence. There is a clear link between exposure to violence and an increased likelihood of perpetration.  This part of the country has been trapped in a devastating and vicious cycle of violence for almost 16 years, to the relative inaction of the global community. Although the dynamics of conflict in the region are complex this is no excuse for leaders to stand back as it unfolds once more.

While this most recent conflict is playing out along ethnic divisions between Hutu, Hunde and Tutsi people, the fighting actually centres, as it always has, on the vast mineral resources which are located in the Kivu provinces. Metals such as coltan, gold and cassiterite are abundant in the area. Demand is high - these are rare metals and they are all used in the production of electronic equipment in the communications industries. But while different factions struggle for control of this mineral wealth, it is the civilians who suffer. This is not acceptable. Manufacturers of such consumer products should be encouraged to use metals and minerals from traceable sources.

In the short-term, fighting has to cease immediately so that civilians may receive protection and safe access to the humanitarian assistance they require.  MONUSCO, having so far been largely ineffectual in this regard, must receive support in fulfilling its protection mandate.

Ultimately however, the problems plaguing this region demand a political solution. Strong administration is required to bring stability. The Congolese government can start by fostering regional economic co-operation and cross border trading. Trade can act as a powerful incentive and it can strengthen the livelihoods of local populations.

Scenes such as those I witnessed last week must become a thing of the past and civilians should finally start to reap some benefits of the huge mineral wealth that, so far, has brought them nothing but pain and suffering. 

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