Staff working with a partner of the aid agency Tearfund in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s unstable eastern region are reporting evidence of torture admidst a growing humanitarian crisis.
HEAL Africa, which runs a hospital in the regional capital Goma, is one of the few humanitarian organisations still operating there as intense fighting between rebel and government forces has moved closer to the city.
The rebels, led by Laurent Nkunda, have taken control of several towns in North Kivu province and have advanced to within a few miles of Goma itself.
Their assault has prompted 250,000 people to flee their homes, taking the total of displaced people in North Kivu to more than a million, leading Tearfund and other aid agencies to warn of an unfolding humanitarian disaster.
Despite the rebels declaring a ceasefire, which held over the weekend, tension remains high and getting aid to civilians is difficult.
"Food and access to water is a massive issue," said Lyn Lusi, of HEAL Africa. In Goma itself, a degree of normality has returned to the city after last week’s looting by the Congolese army which confined many people to their homes.
HEAL Africa’s medical teams remain safe but have been treating civilian casualties, including victims of torture and banditry. An entire family were hospitalised after being attacked, with four children left seriously injured and their mother showing evidence of being tortured.
The family reported their attackers had put a grenade under the bed of a sleeping six-year-old. Surgeons have been battling to save the boy’s life and that of his seriously injured older brother.
Lyn added, "We pray they will survive. Such cruelty is incomprehensible. It has nothing to do with war, it is banditry and terrorism."
In other rebel-controlled areas outside Goma, camps for the displaced have been broken up and people sent back to their villages by force. Lack of food and shelter is a major issue for them.
Tearfund is drawing up plans with partners to respond to the situation with humanitarian aid once the security situation improves.
Tearfund’s Disaster Management Director David Bainbridge said, "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."
He added that the mandate of a 17,000-strong UN peacekeeping force needs to be strengthened to allow it to enforce peace rather than just protect itself.
Tearfund partner projects elsewhere in North Kivu remain unaffected by the fighting, as do the activities of Tearfund’s Disaster Management Team working in South Kivu and Maniema Provinces who are involved in food security, schools reconstruction, water and sanitation provision and public health promotion.