No Peace for Civilians in War-Torn Congo

Katherine Britton | News & Culture Editor | Wednesday, November 26, 2008

No Peace for Civilians in War-Torn Congo

November 28, 2008

The serenity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s lush hills and clear lakes is often punctuated by gunfire these days. The ebb and flow of violence over the last decade has burst about the eastern region of North Kivu again as another peace accord fails, trapping millions of civilians between warring factions that operate with a total-war mentality.

“I’ve been in more conflict situations than I would ever hope to witness,” said Joe DiCarlo, Medical Teams International’s director of emergency relief in the Congo.

“What makes this unusual is that you have four different armies set up within 200 meters of each other, all armed, dangerous.”

Since conflict flared again in August, the complex political struggle between the official Congolese army, the rebel army, Mai-Mai militia and others has displaced another 250,000 people in the North Kivu. Since then, the humanitarian crisis from malnutrition and war atrocities has only become more pronounced.

Across Congo, a country the size of the eastern United States, the United Nations estimates 1.5 million people are living outside their normal homes, many of them displaced three or four times. More than 1 million of those are in North Kivu, living in refugee camps or hiding from armed forces in the forests.

Each side is as guilty of atrocities against the Congolese people as the other, with instances of rape, mutilation, and village razzings almost expected. 

“It’s really a lack of trust in anyone with a gun,” said Paul Rebman, World Relief’s disaster response coordinator, who supervises the work in Congo.

When civilians hear rumors of conflict, nervous civilians “may be sleeping around the perimeter [of the village] at night and people may be forced to just run and seek shelter further in the hills and forested areas, leaving everything behind,” Rebman said.

The violence continues despite the presence of the largest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world, currently 17,000 strong with another 3,000 to be added.

Relief organizations such as World Relief have had to abandon long-term development in the region because of instability, and instead focus their efforts on getting emergency survival kits to terrified families who have overwhelmed refugee camps and local villages or had their homes burned. Kits include everything from food packets to plastic sheeting and cooking utensils.

“In the midst of all these warring factions, you have people—the Congolese—trying to go about their business as best they can, knowing that the likelihood of an armed skirmish or violence could erupt at any time,” DiCarlo said.

A People of Peace, a Culture of Violence

Indeed, the violence between armed forces has spilled over to affect Congo’s people.

Those who still have homes may be looted by soldiers, Rebman says, while multiple sources report soldiers sweeping through refugee camps for food and supplies. 

In the midst of the politics, “[t]he majority of the Congolese people just want to live a peaceful life,” said Rory Anderson, a policy expert on Congo for World Vision. “The majority of Congolese people just want to get up and go to work everyday, they want to farm their fields and they want to send their kids to school.”

But with violence stretching over so much of the new country’s history, the pattern may be difficult for leaders on either side to change.

“It’s so wide-ranging and it’s been going on for so long that it’s at a point where it’s difficult to control,” Rebman said.

Soldiers on all sides have been guilty of gender-based violence, according to the Anderson, with reports of rape reaching unthinkable frequency. In one camp World Vision works, 65 percent of the reported they have been raped, though the number of those who do not report it may be as high as 95 percent, according to World Relief. 

“If you’re cooking one or two meals a day that means you have to walk to the forest to get wood. When you walk to the forest it’s highly likely that you’re going to be attacked and raped,” Anderson said. She said UN forces have yet to institute plans that would keep women protected in circumstances where they have to leave the main camps. 

“Women expect to raped, rather than not raped. That’s outrageous,” she continued.

But with displacement throwing off traditional rhythms and customs and aggravating poverty, the rapes perpetrated by civilian men have also increased.

“At a very basic level, where people had traditional means of marrying one another – they had to pay dowry – they no longer have the ability to pay dowry and so you see the increase of rape by civilian men as well,” Anderson said.

The rate of displacement has also had its effect on children, especially those under three years old.

Exposed to elements, “there’s a sharp, sharp in increase in the number of deaths of children 3 years and under, just because they’re so much more exposed to illness and disease and their bodies just aren’t strong enough to withstand it,” Rebman said.

The two emergency feeding centers World Vision manages in the Congo have seen a similarly grim increase. The centers treat only the gravest cases of malnutrition, and saw about one child per day before August.

“Now we’ve seen an eight to ten fold increase of cases,” Anderson said. That’s a sign that the entire population… [is] both traumatized and they are increasingly malnourished and they are really on the edge,” Anderson said.

With frequent attacks on Congolese women, the loss of property and means, and constant threat of danger, families have been constantly split apart and undermined.

“It’s very difficult to maintain the family when people are living in a state of trauma, when they’re living in a state of displacement, when they’re living in a state of desperation, when their mothers are being viewed as objects and property, and when their fathers are being killed, or when they’re being humiliated because they can’t protect their families,” Anderson said.

In turn, Congo has seen the rise of child soldiers again, not necessarily through coercion, but through this desperation.

At times, even their own families have turned against them, blaming children for the atrocities surrounding them.

“They then accused certain children of witchcraft and they would use that as an excuse to turn them out of their house or to abuse them. And so a lot of this was actually being propagated and endorsed by some of the less theologically sound churches,” Anderson said.

World Vision has since sponsored church conferences to take people through the Bible to see that children are a blessing. But the fact remains that many families cannot support all of their children, even if they are not turning them out of the house for witchcraft.

Help From Without and Within

With the situation continuing to deteriorate with no sure signs of improvement, aid groups are hard at work to help families provide.

“The short answer is they need everything, but most importantly, they need safety—the opportunity to wake up without being afraid; to be able to plant their crops; to know they will be protected,” DiCarlo said.

Although the rebel leader, General Laurent Nkunda, has pulled back some of his troops to allow a “humanitarian corridor” of assistance to some regions, the situation is still tense.

World Relief aid workers are working out the capital city of North Kivu province, Goma, but the city is still seen as a potential strategic target for all sides. Many displaced people have been avoiding the city – and its resources – to avoid getting caught in another conflict.

Meanwhile, aid groups are hoping some people will leave their forest shelters to get assistance that comes closer to them.

World Vision has already distributed 24,000 packets of emergency supplies, and hopes to distribute 20,000 more in the next 30 days. World Relief is working on a similar initiative, providing between 500 and 1,000 survival kits to households. World Food Programme reports food distribution to more than 400,000.

Beyond aid group’s reach, Congolese churches work to provide supplies in more unstable areas. Thanks to mobile phones, churches away from Goma can let aid groups know the needs in their area, procuring whatever food is available to be reimbursed later by World Relief.

“When World Relief itself can’t get out of Goma because of the insecurity, we can still communicate with the churches and resource them to be able to meet the needs of the community,” Rebman said.

Despite the circumstances, Anderson remains hopeful that increased international awareness might bring the necessary pressure to end the conflict.

“A couple years ago we had a lot of nice platitudes from congressional staff and we didn’t get the level of response from the state department to really prioritize this issue in a very meaningful way,” she said.

Today, the public consciousness is more alert, although still grappling to understand the complex situation at work, she said. Anderson urged people to continue to research, pray, and let their leaders know they care about Congo’s humanitarian crisis. 

“If there was no fighting, we could close down our therapeutic feeding centers and start the long-term development. Congo is a very lush and fertile area. People can farm and people want to work. But the only reason why we have these emergency feeding center is because people can’t farm, they can’t work,” Anderson said.

Until the fighting is stopped by outside means, Anderson fears that Congo’s people will never have the peaceful life their country could provide.