UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief
Holmes continues a four-day visit to northeastern regions of the Democratic
Republic of Congo. Since Saturday, he has
surveyed the impact of clashes between government forces and various rebel
groups like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the
National Congress in Defense of the People (CNDP), and the Uganda-based Lord's
Resistance Army (LRA). More than 100
human rights groups and aid organizations are urging the UN humanitarian chief
to insist that United Nations (MONUC) peacekeepers in the DRC be allowed to
join Congolese and Rwandan forces on their mission to ensure that civilians receive
adequate protection. Juliette Prodhan
heads DRC operations for the British-based group OXFAM. She says that a joint offensive by Congolese and Rwandan government troops
against FDLR Hutu forces has raised concerns about reprisal killings and has
hampered NGOs' ability to provide help.
time there's any type of operation by the military or the militia in DRC,
there's always some kind of humanitarian fallout. And that's to do with the lack of discipline
within the armed forces, a lot to do with practices that have become
normalized, rapes, violence, looting.
And so these are all things that the humanitarian community fears very
much could result from a joint operation," she noted.
North Kivu province, Mr. Holmes met with internally displaced families at the
Kibati IDP camp near Goma, who had been endangered by fighting between CNDP
rebels and the national army. In light
of the high casualty figures resulting from that fighting, the Congo Advocacy
Coalition of aid groups sent a public letter to Holmes last week, warning that
the joint Congolese-Rwandan government offensive currently underway has caused
thousands of people to flee their homes, compounding more than a million other victims
internally dislocated from earlier combat.
Prodhan points out that so far, despite coalition concerns about
reprisal killings and the use of civilians as human shields, the latest
offensive has distressed proportionally fewer victims.
"Now to date, the
levels of violence and displacement are not all that severe as we might have
feared. These operations are covering an
area where the population is 850-thousand people. And the figures we have of those who have
been affected so far, who have been displaced by the violence, range from about
five thousand people to 15-thousand. So
if you compare that from before December, 2008, the difference is marked and
the humanitarian community obviously can't say that things are all right. But things are certainly better than we expected,"
the UN humanitarian chief had planned to visit a hospital west of Goma to meet
civilians displaced by the Congolese-Rwandan offensive. But the helicopter trip to Masisi had to be
scrubbed because of bad weather. Instead,
Holmes surveyed a hospital in the provincial capital Goma, as well as a camp
for Rwandans seeking voluntary repatriation.
Then, he flew north to Bunia to assess conditions following the
post-Christmas slaughter of close to one thousand DRC civilians by Ugandan LRA
rebels. OXFAM's Prodhan says that there
are lessons to be learned by Kinshasa and Kigali from December's offensive
against the LRA, and the involvement by UN peacekeepers can play a central role
in limiting the collateral damage.
"What you've seen in response to the petition
made towards John Holmes, yesterday (Saturday), the Congolese and Rwandan
governments both came out and said yes, they are particularly concerned about
protecting civilians. But of course,
with the joint Congolese-Ugandan operation, you've seen massive civilians fall
out. And that's something we do not want
to see happening again in that area or in any other area of the country. The Congolese and the Rwandans have spoken
out and said that yes, they are responsible for the protection of civilians. So
we hope they will show their good side, their true colors, in making sure that
it does happen, does become a part of their mission in the coming days and that
they allow the UN peacekeepers who are accompanying that for the purposes of
protecting civilians to do their job," she urged.
To help MONUC do its job, Juliette
Prodhan says governments should readily
inform the international force of where they will be operating. Peacekeeping units can also be advantageously
placed to serve as a buffer between rebels and potential civilian targets. In addition, Prodhan says peacekeepers should be allowed to share
information about operations with civilian populations in order to prevent
displacements. She says they can help relocating
communities find protection and safe havens around UN peacekeepers' military
bases, can serve as witnesses to rebels or government wrongdoing, and can make
sure that violators are brought to justice.