The United Nations has responded to escalated fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with an appeal for $38 million in emergency international aid. The situation for nearly one million displaced civilians has been deteriorating because of stepped up rebel activity by FDLR Hutu militias (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and violence also perpetrated by conventional armed forces of the Congolese army (FARDC). UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman David Nthengwe says that especially women and children have been caught in the middle.
“These people have lost not just the opportunity to go to school, but their houses have been burned down (some of them), and some of them have been in the camps for quite a long time. And at this time, when we are looking at the time when they will return back home, they will need of course clean water. They will need education for the children. There will be women who have been sexually violated. They will need to continue with their medical assistance, psychological assistance,” he pointed out.
Meanwhile, homes, communities, and livelihoods have disappeared as a constant, but unpredictable movement of displaced persons makes planning and aid deliveries by NGOs and United Nations agencies more complicated. The new aid being requested by the UN humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) in Geneva will help provide food, sanitation, education, added physical protection, and therapeutic treatment in the face of atrocities that include rape, robbery, murder, and extortion.
Nthengwe, the UNHCR’s public information officer based in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, notes that the rise in violence since January follows several ill-fated military operations undertaken by Congo’s undependable national army, recently reconstructed in part by re-enlisting and granting amnesty to Tutsi CNDP rebels who had staged a rebellion last year under discredited General Laurent Nkunda, who continues to be held in neighboring Rwanda. In addition, he says that a stalled effort to chase FDLR rebels out of the country has generated a backlash of Hutu attacks on Congolese civilians and their villages.
“I think the majority of attacks are by the FDLR. But also, there are Congolese elements, the militia elements within the eastern Congo, who are also destabilizing the people. And these armed groups are very difficult because it’s very difficult to control them. The area is vast, inaccessible. The roads are very poor, and it’s just impossible in many cases,” he claims.
Nthengwe observes that the new aid appeal will be financed through a pooled common fund set up four years ago by donor nations to finance emergency requests.
“This money comes from the Pooled Fund, and different donors make contributions, and the delivery of this money goes to different UN agencies. The majority of it will be going to assisting distressed people and their families,” he said.
Rape, classified as Sexually Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in the DRC, is a problem that has accelerated considerably in the first three months of this year in eastern Congo’s South Kivu province, according to UN reports. David Nthengwe says that part of the rise reflects the deterioration of military and local law enforcement authority.
“Impunity is associated with a lack of a strong state authority, the absence of professional, well-trained police, the absence of judiciary, and the lack of state penitentiaries like prisons. All of these elements play a lot to increase the numbers of rapes because those perpetrators of rape, in many cases, the punishment for committing such a crime gives them the impunity to continue to rape, to commit these kind s of crimes, and this is why in some cases, you have an increase in rape cases,” he observed.
But he also credits the rising numbers to better reporting methods and humanitarian worker monitoring that has assisted more victims in coming forward.
“The more rape cases reported means that the reporting systems have been improved. For example in the IDP camps, we’ve been conducting training on how to report rape cases. And so the better reporting systems you have in place means that the number of cases will also increase,” he advised.
Because of the progress being made in rape documentation, the UNHCR’s Nthengwe cautions that whether or not rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo is on the rise is subject to how and where it is being reported and by the trained medical personal of nongovernmental organizations who have been contracted to advise, provide treatment, medical care, and counseling to Congolese rape victims.