International aid and development agencies are struggling to get access to hundreds of thousands of people displaced in the recent escalation of conflict in Congo’s Democratic Republic (DRC).
Many aid workers have had to evacuate with relief operations suspended as fighting between rebels and government forces encroaches on Goma, the provincial capital.
It is believed that more than 250,000 people have now been displaced – adding to the 850,000 that have been displaced over the last two years, caught up in one of the world’s forgotten conflicts.
The UK-based agency Tearfund says its partner agencies are able to remain in the area by drawing up plans to reach people caught up in a new outbreak of violence in the volatile east of the country.
What is lacking and is urgently needed is a relief corridor to provide secure access for aid to reach the displaced people, a spokesperson explained.
Tearfund works with two partner development agencies in the region. Both have staff currently remaining in Goma scoping a response to urgent needs, however a spokesperson for HEAL Africa said the control of Goma was in limbo with retreating government forces worsening the security situation by going on looting sprees and fueling the public fear in the town.
Rebel forces, known as the National Congress for the Defence of the People, have taken control of several key towns and are closing on the city of Goma, resulting in many thousands of Congolese fleeing their homes.
The UN, which has a 17,000-strong peace-keeping force in the region, says the fighting is having a `catastrophic’ humanitarian toll on the civilian population. The DRC military operation is unable to bring the conflict to an end.
Tearfund’s Disaster Management Director, David Bainbridge, says that the number of people affected by the conflict will grow even larger unless there is a cessation of hostilities.
‘The UN peace keeping force needs a strengthened mandate which would allow it to enforce peace rather than just protect themselves,’ says Bainbridge. ‘Local people have been known to stone UN vehicles out of frustration for a lack of intervention to keep any peace. We are working with our partner agencies to help civilians caught up in this but we need the fighting to stop as soon as possible. Both sides are accused of disregarding the rights and safety of civilians and humanitarian access must be a priority.’
Although the rebels have now stopped their advance on Goma and have declared a unilateral ceasefire, Tearfund’s Country Representative for DRC, Sadiki Byombuka, who is based in nearby Bukavu, says businesses in Goma have closed and people are staying at home as the security situation remains tense.
Tearfund has released initial funding to scale up relief activity to provide the civilian population with food aid and medical supplies – as soon as the volatile security situation eases, enabling agencies the space to respond.
Tearfund partner relief programmes elsewhere in North Kivu, such as Beni, have also received new influxes of displaced people. In South Kivu and Maniema Provinces the activities of Tearfund’s disaster management operation are ongoing – providing food security, schools reconstruction, water and sanitation provision and public health promotion.
The east of the Democratic Republic of Congo has been affected by conflict since the end of a five year conflict in 2003. It is estimated that five million people have died in DRC during the conflict, primarily through malnutrition and water born diseases.
The rebels’ leader, Laurent Nkunda, claims to be protecting the minority Tutsi population in the east from militias linked to the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in the early 1990s. However some see the control of natural resources in the area, such as gold and coltan - which is used in the making of mobile phones - as the root of the conflict.
The DRC Government accuses neighbouring Rwanda of supporting rebels with weapons and troops as fighting is concentrated alongside the border between the two countries. The Rwandan Government denies any involvement in the fighting. It will take international pressure to stop this latest violence – as well resolving the issue of perpetrators of the Rwanda genocide remaining in DRC.
A peace deal signed in January collapsed amid mutual accusations of breaking the ceasefire from both the rebels and the government.