As preparations forge ahead for the deployment of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) intervention brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned of high levels of violence and suffering among civilians in the strife-torn country.
Speaking after a four-day visit to the DRC, ICRC president Peter Maurer, said: “The violence and suffering inflicted on people in the eastern part of the country has reached a level rarely seen in two decades.
“Amid almost total indifference people are enduring violent treatment every day. Civilians are directly targeted in attacks that don’t spare even children or the elderly and many people are subjected to sexual violence,” he said after visiting the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma.
The ICRC president visited the Don Bosco Centre in Goma, where more than 3 000 children are accommodated in difficult circumstances, made even more vulnerable by the war and other violence.
“Some have lost all trace of their families in the chaos of fighting and the ensuing displacement. I was moved by these personal tragedies, like that of Kambale K., only 10 years old, who has had no news of his parents since last November.”
He also went to the bedsides of dozens of people wounded in recent fighting who are being treated in Goma’s Ndosho Hospital, where an ICRC surgical team has been working since last November alongside local personnel. He listened to the story of eight-year-old Éden K., seriously injured in a rocket attack, whose leg had to be amputated.
The intervention brigade, announced by the UN in March will have a South African contingent with SA National Defence Force troops serving alongside their counterparts from Malawi and Tanzania. At the time of publication no announcement had been made as regards the commander of the 3 000 plus force nor had the UN or its DPKO given any specifics on its rules of engagement.
The intervention brigade has a mandate to conduct “targeted offensive operations” against Eastern DRC rebels and is expected to focus on the M23 rebel group.
Each country will send an infantry battalion of 850 soldiers, amounting to 2 550 men. The remaining troops will come from an artillery company, a Special Forces company and a reconnaissance company. The brigade will probably operate under the command of a Tanzanian general, according to MONUSCO.
The ICRC’s top man said many medical facilities in eastern DRC struggle to treat the wounded and sick, as they lack supplies, often looted, or because there are armed men on the premises or because medical staff cannot safely reach their workplace.
“Serious violations of international humanitarian law must stop. It is the responsibility of everyone in a position of influence to work urgently for greater respect for international humanitarian law,” Maurer said, in the hope that various talks and peace initiatives currently underway will help ease the suffering and improve the humanitarian situation in eastern DRC.
“The resurgence of inter-community tension and fragmentation of armed groups are driving the region into further chaos and violence on a daily basis,” he added.
Maurer said the security situation has deteriorated in Kivu, Katanga and in parts of Maniema bordering North and South Kivu. The situation in Eastern Province, in Ituri especially, also remains tense.
“The unpredictability is causing concern in communities and among those striving to bring aid to them. In this context, the presence and activities of DRC Red Cross Society volunteers are crucial. They are often the first to help people and have to cope with the cruelty and horror. Their commitment is boundless.
The DRC is the site of one of the ICRC’s five largest operations in the world in budgetary terms.