It was in late March that I started receiving increasingly worrying reports about alleged atrocities in remote areas of North Kivu. Military operations by the Congolese army against the FDLR rebel group had continued (Rwandan troops deployed in a joint operation with the Congolese army withdrew in February); and reports suggested that the offensive was likely to expand to South Kivu.
I heard about reprisal attacks, the burning of houses, sexual violence, looting, and people being prevented from accessing their fields, their only source of food. Many of these reports were coming from areas where Oxfam teams had begun carrying out life-saving work with a local partner, helping to provide safe drinking water, clean latrines and public health education.
I could not believe what I was reading: up to 250,000 people reported to have left their homes since January; 40,000 families said to be seeking safety in larger towns. Congolese families are big – that would mean up to 200,000 people.
Some of our senior staff, as sceptical as me, went to the field and came back with a clear report: it is true, they told me, it’s just not on TV yet.
Our immediate response was to decide to scale up our emergency operations in South Lubero. Water trucks were sent to provide clean water to the displaced and the families who hosted them. Hygiene items were distributed, and health promoters were deployed to help avoid the worst: the outbreak of epidemics, which could kill thousands.
We also decided to open an emergency response office in the neighbouring province of South Kivu where we were getting reports of another military build-up, indicating that a similar tragedy could happen there.
A few days later, I was on a plane crossing this vast country towards the conflict zone to support our field staff and to get a first-hand view of what was happening on the ground. After two flights and a trip by road I finally arrived in Lubero. The government representative there told me the situation was dramatic and people needed urgent help.
I continued by road southwards, into what the United Nations called the “red zone” – not to be used without military escorts. Oxfam refuses such escorts, due to concerns that we may be perceived as supporting a particular side in any conflict. It was one day after an attack on the town of Luofu, where 255 houses were deliberately burned to the ground.
We met some displaced people on the road, who were just fleeing from the fighting, carrying what little possessions they could with them. They were exhausted and desperate.
They were heading to a town called Kirumba, which was also our destination. Several thousand people had gathered there for an Oxfam emergency distribution of essential hygiene items. Two days later, we would start trucking 60,000 litres of clean water to Luofu.
Through an interpreter, I heard some of their stories. One woman witnessed another being gang-raped by three armed men. The victim died later, the witness told me. The witness – an old woman – ran away from her village with her children; but had become separated from her husband, who fled in another direction. She told me the few items she had managed to carry with her were taken away by soldiers.
I have been to places like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone and thought I had seen the worst of what human beings were capable of doing to others. But the stories of these displaced women, children, and men made it difficult to hold back tears.
As the Oxfam distribution of hygiene items continued, we travelled further south to a town called Kanyabayonga, where Oxfam was carrying out water distribution. The town’s population has more than doubled during the recent fighting, and Oxfam is trucking in 180,000 litres of clean water every day.
Traditional village chiefs from this vast remote area gathered to tell me their stories. Since the start of the military operations, the population here has been caught between a rock and a hard place. Civilians are seen with suspicion by both warring sides, and accused of being collaborators. People had no choice but to leave their villages – but also had nowhere really safe to go.
They arrived in Kanyabayonga, they said, terrified, tired, and in need of protection and help. The fighting had not stopped. One day before we arrived, the FDLR rebels had attacked Kanyabayonga itself.
People were living with host families – in some cases, up to five other families in a house. I tried to imagine how it would be – no clean water, only basic squat latrines, with little money and a war going on around me.
But what really broke my heart was to hear about the systematic burning of houses in these remote areas of North Kivu province. Villagers reported that many thousands of homes had been burned to the ground.
There are around 17,500 UN peacekeepers stationed in Congo – but with little visible presence here to give these vulnerable people any sense of safety. People I spoke to wanted to see UN peacekeepers patrol on foot, to be present in their communities. To protect them.
Now I’m back in the eastern provincial capital, Goma, where Oxfam co-ordinates its emergency operations in the DRC. I am happy that we have managed to scale up our emergency work in South Lubero. More help will come, if the security situation permits. If only the world would not look away.