A recent mission to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s war zone by the humanitarian group Refugees International has found the North Kivu region still needs infusions of western aid from UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. The advocacy group says contributions from donor countries are also essential for the huge number of displaced individuals and communities to make smoother transitions back to homes, schools, and the workplace. Refugees International advocate Camilla Olson was on the month-long mission to North Kivu’s provincial capital Goma, and also visited the capital Kinshasa and other parts of the DRC. She says that local host families and more recently opened camps for displaced persons have effectively shouldered a large share of the rehabilitation responsibilities, but that the UN peacekeeping mission MONUC continues to play an indispensable role in protecting civilians from frequent skirmishes between the Congolese national army (FARDC) and Rwandan FDLR (Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda) rebels.
“While there has been the Goma peace agreement in January and there’ve been some improvements in access and security on the ground, the situation is still quite unstable. There are still rebel groups that are active. There have been ceasefire violations since the agreement, and the displaced people will remain displaced for quite some time longer. So what we’re advocating is increased US and international assistance, not only for basic services for the displaced, but also to livelihood programs and to education,” she said.
Security and access by humanitarian personnel was improved by the 2008 Kivu Conference on Peace, Stability and Development in January. But targeted attacks by all armed groups in the region have caused thousands of new displacements as Congolese army supply routes and security measures are enacted. Olson says women and children remain particularly vulnerable to rape, killings, looting of property, conscription, and forced labor, and the UN peacekeeping mandate is their sole line of protection.
“MONUC still plays a very important role in civilian protection, and it’s important for the international community to continue supporting MONUC at the current troop levels because the national army is deploying and going after the FDLR forces and there are other rebel groups who are active. And so MONUC is really the key player as far as civilian protection goes on the ground,” she notes.
The Refugees International team found that an indigenous Congolese network of host families and host communities that inevitably evolved has capably performed the task of absorbing a majority of displaced North Kivu residents. Olson says even after the international community opened up camps, the dispossessed would look first to host communities, which she says preserve their dignity, enable them to feel more stable and secure, and often give them an opportunity to resume their farming activities.
“About 70 percent of the displaced population stay with host families, or usually their families or friends or from the same ethnic or language group. And the host families are really the ones who are supporting these displaced people. The international community does provide some basic services, but more so in the camps than they do in these host communities. And so, what we’re asking for is that the international community start targeting the host families and the displaced people in order to make sure that the humanitarian situation for them does not deteriorate further,” she noted.
Although education is costly to DRC families since school fees are often demanded by teachers, who are unpaid by the state, schools have become a safe, protective environment for uprooted Congolese children. Refugees International advocate Camilla Olson says that enrollment and regular attendance have dramatically reduced the number of idle street children. In addition, they offer training that enables youngsters to contribute to rebuilding their country and provide a safeguard against the abhorrent recruitment of youth to serve as child soldiers in the ongoing conflict.
“What’s needed is working with the local communities, building capacities for the local schools that already exist in order to ensure that displaced children and also local children can access education because as we see it, it’s a very strong protection tool for children, who are still vulnerable to being forcibly recruited by armed groups or to forced labor and other protection concerns,” she said.