The humanitarian crisis in DR Congo is as severe as it was in late 2008, international agency Oxfam said today as it announced that it was significantly scaling up its emergency response to reach an additional 150 000 people displaced across swathes of North Kivu and South Kivu in eastern DR Congo.
According to UN figures, some 250 000 people in the provinces of North and South Kivu have been displaced since mid-January following a military operation targeting the FDLR rebel group.
This is the equivalent to the numbers displaced last autumn when intense fighting broke out, with the newly displaced hidden in far and remote areas, the international aid agency said.
Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of Congo said the “war is far from over for ordinary Congolese. These terrible human tragedies are happening in remote areas far away from television cameras, but this does not make the suffering less real for those concerned.
“Homes and shops are being looted and ransacked, women and girls are being raped, and civilians are being forced to flee, many for the third or fourth time. We are helping them pick up the pieces by increasing our emergency work. It is tragic to see Congo`s civilians caught up in this awful violence yet again.”
There also have been reports of armed men committing reprisal killings of civilians, blocking off roadways, in some cases burning down houses and chasing people away. In parts of Lubero, where most people are subsistence farmers, civilians can barely access their fields to harvest due to widespread insecurity and looting.
With the operations against the FDLR set to expand to South Kivu, there are mounting concerns for civilians there, several tens of thousands of whom have already been forced from their homes.
Although, according to the UN, some 300 000 other people have returned to their homes in parts of the North Kivu, the calm in some areas, such as Rutshuru, has been accompanied by renewed insecurity in others, such as Lubero and Walikale.
Oxfam is developing a flexible response to the new crisis that can provide water, sanitation and life-saving hygiene promotion to dispersed groups of people on the move, as well as larger groups of people sheltering in specific areas.
Fighting and insecurity has hampered humanitarian access this year, and a quicker and lighter response is required to reach people during windows of opportunity. Throughout eastern DRC, Oxfam is already assisting half a million people, and as a result of the scale up the agency will reach 650 000 people, despite ongoing security challenges. Teams have been sent to Lubero in North Kivu and Bukavu in South Kivu to plan the scale-up.
In Lubero, Oxfam is already providing clean water and basic sanitation to 40 000 people newly displaced by the fresh fighting, especially to combat epidemics.
“ll parties to the conflict – including the government armed forces as well as militia groups – have to live up to their responsibility under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and to provide humanitarian agencies safe access to the civilians in need,” Stoessel added.
Oxfam said a lack of peacekeeping resources on the ground was also hampering efforts to protect civilians.
The Head of Oxfam International`s New York office, Nicole Widdersheim further added that more “than four months after the UN Security Council approved 3000 additional peacekeepers, not one extra soldier has arrived. Until the reinforcements come, MONUC needs to ensure that the troops on the ground are doing all in their power to protect people. Civilians need more foot patrols in towns and along the main roads in order to be kept as safe as possible.”
Oxfam notes Bangladesh and Egypt have pledged to send troops, but none “are on the ground yet.”
Other areas of eastern Congo, such as in Haut Uélé and Ituri in the far north east of Congo, are also plagued by violence. Fighting between government forces and the LRA rebel group in the Haut Uélé has displaced over 190 000 people since December, according to UN figures.
The LRA has killed at least 700 people and kidnapped over 300 people, many of them children. In Ituri, early reports indicate that fighting between the FPJC and FRPI rebels and the government army last week has displaced tens of thousands of people.
With the UN Security Council set to discuss the MONUC peacekeeping force on Thursday this week, Oxfam is urging world leaders to mark the occasion by rapidly providing the extra troops needed. It also called on them to ensure that existing resources are deployed to the most insecure locations, so as to more effectively protect civilians.