An agreement was reached this week to end fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict – between many different groups – has claimed 5.4 million lives since 1998, mostly from disease. The agreement follows several weeks of a shaky ceasefire and calls for Congolese government and rebel forces to withdraw from some positions. They would be replaced by UN peacekeepers.
Relief agencies say a massive humanitarian effort will be needed over the coming years. Bob Kitchen is the head of emergency operations in the DRC for the International Rescue Committee. From Goma, he gave VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua his reaction to the peace agreement.
“This is very good news. This is the best first step towards peace that we’ve seen for the northeastern Congo for a very long time. It’s great that the government and the other parties to the conflict have come together in Goma in this peace conference; and have engaged seriously about finding peace. A military solution is not a sustainable option for northeastern Congo. There are much longer lasting tensions at play associated with ethnic groups and old politics. So, a peaceful negotiated solution is the way for the solution,” he says.
Kitchen warns, however, “the reality at the moment is that even when this deal is signed, and it’s still not signed yet, it’s just a piece of paper. There’s going to be a massive amount of work to do to roll it out into the north of Kivu and to communicate it to the population and to gain investments of peace.”
He says that the “humanitarian needs haven’t changed at all” while the peace conference was held. And despite a shaky ceasefire in recent weeks, civilians continue to be displaced and harassed. Rape has been a major weapon used by fighters in the conflict.
“We will start implementing programs that help stabilize communities and bring them back together. We’re going to try and expand our education programs so that these children can come together and continue to learn together,” he says. The International Rescue Committee and other groups say it’s vital people have access to health care. Many of the diseases people are dying from are easily preventable.
The head of IRC operations in the DRC says much needs to be done to ensure the peace agreement holds. “One of the biggest dangers is that it’s a massive population that we’re dealing with, who have lived within a war environment for years. The ethnic distrust and ethnic hatred that we see in the field is tangible. And it’s going to take a massive process of reconciliation to bring communities back together for them to live in peace. And this is something the government can’t do on their own,” Kitchen says.
The IRC is “strongly advocating” international governments continue to be engaged in the peace process, such as donating large amounts of resources. This also includes bringing in those with experience in reconciliation efforts, such as in Liberia and Sierra Leone. “This is going to be complex and it’s going to be painful. And if it’s going to work, we all need to remain engaged. We can’t now just relax because we got a peace deal. We need to redouble our efforts if anything,” says Kitchen.