Playing with fire in Congo

The UN has lent its support to government efforts to drive out rebels. But ordinary people are suffering as a result

Furaha, a 40 year-old mother, was working in her field when she was seized by a group of armed men and raped. For the next six months she served as their sex slave and was forced to sleep with around six men a day.

“One day they beat me so hard that I thought I was dead; they left me there and I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The first thing I remember is the peacekeepers rescuing me.”

Furaha’s story shows why 10 years into its mission, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s UN peacekeeping force – better known by its French acronym Monuc – is as vital as ever. She literally owes them her life.

But the UN has taken a wrong turn and Monuc has let down the very people it was meant to help. This year a military strategy, planned by the Congolese government and backed by the UN, aimed to bring peace by aggressive action against a rebel group. But it has gone catastrophically awry.

Since January, 900,000 people have fled their homes and more than a thousand civilians have been killed. Homes have been burned to the ground and women and girls – some as young as four – have been brutally raped.

This violence is the direct result of the Congolese army’s offensive against theDemocratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group formed by some of those responsible for the Rwandan genocide, who have hidden in Congo since 1994. The highest echelons of the UN security council have given this offensive their backing and the peacekeepers supported it by providing the Congolese army with food rations, fuel and transport, and occasionally fire-power.

On the face of it, support for removing rebels might not seem so bad. But the suffering the offensive has unleashed is disproportionate to any results it has achieved. As of October, for every rebel combatant disarmed during this offensive, one civilian was killed, an estimated seven women were raped, six houses were torched, and 900 people were forced to flee their homes, according to a group of 84 Congolese and international NGOs.

The UN should have realised that this outcome was likely. The Congolese army is poorly paid, undisciplined and known human rights abusers serve in the officer class. As a result, many units have treated civilians as if they were the enemy. Sections of the army have burned, looted and raped wherever they have been posted.

The FDLR has also wreaked havoc and has deliberately responded to this year’s offensive with vicious reprisals against civilians. People in eastern Congo have told us that the operations have “woken a sleeping devil” and the FDLR are now more aggressive. Indeed a report by the UN’s own independent specialists on Congo, the Group of Experts, said that the offensive had failed on its own terms: the FDLR has not been dismantled and is still a threat to civilians.

The “highest priority” of the peacekeepers according to their mandate is protecting civilians. This military misadventure, however well intended it may be, goes completely against that.

After many months of downplaying the stark humanitarian consequences, Alan Doss, the head of UN peacekeeping in Congo, has said that the operation will end on 31 December, to make way for a new phase of joint UN-Congolese operations. The UN is attempting to put in place better safeguards for civilian protection this time around. The people of eastern Congo will be waiting to see if they can make that happen.

Yet there are other ways to weaken the FDLR that are less harmful to civilians. Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one. Likewise, members of the FDLR in Europe and beyond have kept the militia going with funding and advice on military tactics, and need to be clamped down on. Legal action is being taken against The FDLR’s president in Germany but other members overseas are continuing their activities unhindered.

For the sake of Furaha and others like her, the UN security council must learn from the mistakes made this year and start charting a less destructive path to peace in Congo. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Comments in chronological order (Total 29 comments)

20 December 2009 11:40AM
In a country where rebels are rebels in the morning and the government in the afternoon it will take more than the UN to bring peace.
In Africa maybe a miracle.

20 December 2009 12:03PM
Here’s a novel idea, why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on the individuals who carry out these atrocities. Those monsters who wield the machetes to maim and mutilate their victims. The depaved individuals who rape four year old infants, those who kidnap women in order to gang rape them. The responsibility lies with those criminals, nowhere else. Stop the hand-wringing and cries of mea culpa, it must be the fault of the United Nations or the former colonial powers.
Each individual must be accountable for his or her actions, no-one else forces the to commit these atrocious crimes. I doubt that there is one individual reading this newspaper would be capable of carrying out such deeds and if such a crime where to be committed in this country the person responsible would be held to account.

20 December 2009 12:29PM
To attack/invade a country, in order to give women education and liberate them from an oppressive dress code, seems justifiable.
But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!
How has happened to our moral compass?

20 December 2009 12:45PM
The UN always has to work with the “official” government, That is why it gets itself into morally ambiguous situations like this.

20 December 2009 1:04PM
“Depleting their ranks through offers of resettlement is one”
This approach has been tried consistently by MONUC and others, and has unsurprisingly resulted in very few FDLR soldiers leaving their safe havens in North Kivu to return to Rwanda – after all, why risk possible prosecution and lengthy jail-terms, as well as giving-up free power, food, money, livestock, sex etc. off the backs of the unprotected Congolese villagers?
Also the article omits to point out other money-generating activities that the FDLR control in Eastern DRC (cassiterite / diamond / gold mines etc.) that help to swell their coffers and sustain the importations of military weapons, aside from the overseas members’ contributions.
Regrettably the situation has become arguably more complex since the start of the combined DRC-Rwandese army military interventions at the beginning of the year, and there are no clear-cut solutions to this problem that the Western powers seem to have forgotten about, more’s the tragedy.
20 December 2009 1:05PM
Lets not kid ourselves people, the UN is in there to keep the region sutiably stable for further extractive mining corporations and the like. The Congo has been one of the darkest most bruatl places on earth for almost 100 years.

20 December 2009 1:55PM
Too bad Bush got swept aside. He was doing great things for Africa.

20 December 2009 2:04PM
“But in Congo, a conflict where raping women and girls is used as a weapon of war and a death toll that exceeds that of Iraq and Afghanistan combined, we smugly turn a blind eye!”
No we don’t. We just know that any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them.
How has happened to our moral compass?
Indeed. I often wonder.

20 December 2009 3:02PM
“any action would cause people to take to the streets with signs demanding “No Blood for Coltan”. Millions of them”.
Nevertheless, we can work around that with perjury and deception.

20 December 2009 3:41PM
Well, I really like the fact that the article is bringing much needed awareness to
the one of the conflicts in Africa.
Please do more of that.
I wonder why it takes events of nightmarish proportions to ellicit coverage.
These events highlight the shortcomings of the UN for combat ops.
There has to be more thinking applied to issues like the Congo if we want to see success in nation building.
Unfortunately, the burden will be primarily on African nations (AU)who have some modicum of stability to assume a leading role.
The local politics can be daunting, and I’m not sure if you’ll get anything close to a western ideal in goverance.
The question will really boil down to how willing any group of nations are to get involved and stay involved for a long period of time
20 December 2009 3:50PM
My reading of this article was not that the west should invade Congo to stop these horrific abuses happening, or that the FDLR should be given a free hand. Surely wasn?t it highlighting the hypocrisy and morally bankrupt idea of a UN force with a peacekeeping mandate backing a Congolese army (FARDC) which is raping and pillaging every bit as much as the FDLR.
African Adventurer, the FARDC is made up of many militias who up until a year ago were still active in committing exactly the same abuses of the FDLR. The biggest group the CNDP have been integrated into the army with no additional training and little accountability for past abuses. They have been given positions of responsibility and some of their officers are suspected of war crimes, but they are not handed over to The Hague because it?s not politically expedient to do so.
A recent Global Witness report and the group of experts report as well as the report of the Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial executions found evidence that certain units of the FARDC have taken control of a number of mines and are involved in illegal mineral smuggling. So in effect the UN has been supporting rape, murder and illegal smuggling. Shame on them and the Security Council members who give political support.
Attention has to be given to real security sector reform in the DRC, better demobilisation, better training and more judges, to ensure that impunity which allows these abuses to continue is challenged. Yes the responsibility should lie squarely with the individuals but with no rule of law this is difficult to enforce. And before we sit here in our western smugness thinking we would never do that, rape has long been seen as a spoil of war, after Germany surrendered in 1945, thousands of women were raped by the Russian army.
20 December 2009 4:04PM
Just a thought.
Ever wonder why African affairs rarely make in on the western medias
I thought at first it was just racism plain and simple.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure.
The west’s national interests dont seem to include very many things African.
North Africa gets attention because of proximity to the EU, besides that,
the central african states are seemingly on their own.
20 December 2009 4:05PM
The UN aren’t a lot of use. I’m not sure why anyone is surprised by this. The conflict will continue until one side wins. But the UN will specifically act to prevent this happening. Both sides will perform what we call ‘war crimes’ as a matter of course. While both sides are deadlocked, struggling for control, neither side seems worse than the other in this respect. But once one side gains the upper hand, then they will clearly be committing far more war crimes, while the other, defeated side finds itself re-cast as a victim. The UN will be obliged to protect the victim and withdraw support for the perpetrators of these war crimes. Then, balance will be restored and the whole sorry business can start again.
The sooner the UN simply withdraws completely, the better.
20 December 2009 4:58PM
fififixit, I agree with your analysis of Congo.
As an aside, I agree too, that Russian forces committed horrendous atrocities as they moved in to occupy parts of defeated Germany. One further comment with regard to that statement. It has become politically correct to accuse Russia as the “bad ally” of rape following the fall of Germany in 1945. I have been an observer of Germany for two decades, and was amazed to learn that prior to the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, and prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germans still feared complaining about allied atrocities for fear that they would be viewed as not-sufficiently-contrite. As a result, many allied atrocities remain unreported. How often is it recognised in the UK, how much worse the fire bombing of Dresden was, than the bombing of London? No, I do not rehash the act itself, but I seriously abhor western ignorance of and idealisation of our forces which resulted because Germany felt it was not in a position to complain.
I am familiar with a town where the occupying forces were French, and where all women of any age were raped. This is not yet politically correct to discuss. Were British, Canadian, and American forces exceptions? I don’t think so. I have a Canadian uncle, who upon returning home to his family, reported that they were told as the occupation moved in, that it was ok to take what they wanted. Did it stop at that? I can not tell you. Would it be politically correct if I did?
20 December 2009 6:37PM
It’s kinda disheartening that Africa just doesnt really interest many people in the west.
Looking at the amount of posts here vs. other threads, it doesnt look good.
Nobody is really picking up on the fact that we need the “5 asian economic tigers phenomenon” to happen in Africa.
There are many good reasons why the central African countries need economic prosperity. I’m just not very hopeful they’ll get the opportunity without some concerted effort on our part.
21 December 2009 12:24AM
At some point people are going to pay attention.
If nothing else because of the sheer amount of corpses.
21 December 2009 1:18AM
four, or five, or six million deaths in eight, or nine, or ten years. unimaginable suffering.
remember that after the event and despite the illegality iraq and afghanistan occupations have been signed off.
for eff’s sake don’t be daft – remember guantanamo, bagram &c, and as the old nixon-kissinger phrase goes, ‘follow the money’. cassiterite has a highest price in the london stock exchange.
if you don’t want to read ft reports, listen to a bit of keith harmon snow on the net. but do read the above newsclip from channel four. probably better to go direct to their site and search ‘congo cassiterite’. it doesn’t come from anywhere else yet…
21 December 2009 1:21AM
on the newsclip point i should’ve said ‘watch’.
21 December 2009 2:14AM
Central Africa needs more than just western outrage because Uganda passed some homophobic laws. Cental Africa is much bigger than just Uganda.
The atrocities in the Congo, Rwanda, Cote d’ivore, etc..even Sudan are the stuff of nightmares.
The western left has more than enough blustering indignation on any given subject, like Uganda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Copenhagen. Where is this outrage in the face of the mass slaughter and torture of average Africans?
21 December 2009 2:27AM
What will come back to haunt the western sphere of influence is that at some point the cental African nations or coastal African nations will find an equilibrium. This will not be a western friendly influence.
Somalia is lawless to be sure, BUT the groups most dedicated to stability and most capable of providing it are not pro-west. In fact, many are fundamentalist muslim in nature.
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back and see what will emerge out of all this
21 December 2009 2:30AM
This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
21 December 2009 2:35AM
The west doesnt have to do a thing now.
Just sit back
as it has been doing during successive empires, then. as it has done during the structural adjustment programme period. as it is doing from the uk with the cdc, formerly commonwealth development corporation.
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
21 December 2009 4:01AM
genned up, madjack, or only prepared to eke out your piratical glee via your screen name?
I’m thinking in this case “genned up”.
Its great that there are NGOs, the UN, CDC and other folks providing relief.
Its not working.
Other parts of Africa who have established ties with the west are doing better.
Central Africa and alot of coastal African nations are in tatters.
The UN has screwed up and mismanaged what should be an example of what it can do.
I dont mean to single out the UN, because there is ALOT of missed opportunity from many sides.
I feeling a rant coming on so I’ll stop with the example of Rwanda.
We in the west should have learned something from this and didnt really give a crap.
21 December 2009 4:13AM
Ok I lied about stopping…..
It should offend western sensibilities that people on the continent are mangled, killed and sold into slavery but we could care less.
Apartheid, Darfur and now nothing…..its sad.
21 December 2009 5:54AM
Yep, keep up the coverage on this area. We want to know what is going on.
We can at least, ask to know what is going on there – not remain ignorant.
& who knows, if some opportunity comes along – we’ll be able to recognise it and take it.
21 December 2009 6:31AM
I think one reason why the Congo gets less attention that Israel is that the problems are incredibly complex and there are no goodies or baddies to side with. Nobody comes out of this well.
I am pleased to see nobody (so far) has blamed the UN for the chaos. The UN has neither the resources nor the authority to impose a solution on a war-torn nation- that was never its purpose and it does not have its own army. Long ago the UN decided to mainly use local, regional and second-rate armies when peacekeeping for political reasons and the results are inevitable; they often do no help at all (but lets not forget the UN does do good work with aid, education, healthcare etc).
Whilst I do not deny for a minute the responsibility for Belgium which abandoned Congo totally unprepared for independance back in 1960, the Congolese have had 50 years to sort themselves out, but they have never found an effective stable leader (let alone a democratic one).
They must take some responsibility for themselves. “They” does not of course include the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims.
21 December 2009 7:43AM
Keo2008, when the Congolese did choose a leader, whom they felt would represent their interests in Patrice Lumumba, the west backed Mobutu and had him executed. Thus ushering in years of a dictator who raped the countries resources for his own personal wealth and the “everyone for himself” policy that we still see in action in the DRC today. Who knows if Lumumba would have been the great liberator, I suppose the track record of many of leaders of his time wasn’t great, but he may have been the Congolese Mandela, but we will never know.
An army which doesn’t get paid takes what it wants/needs from the local populace, in exactly the same way that the many militias do. The few judges….who don’t get paid, extort money for preferential sentences, gaolers who don’t get paid…free prisoners who can pay. Everyone is in it for himself. This could also extend to the endemic levels of sexual violence.
The Congolese people need our support, need positive international community engagement to help to build their infrastructure, but not uncritical support. It is not acceptable for the UN or Western governments to turn a blind eye to abuses because of geo-politics. There is a lot to be said for the influence of the regional actors in the conflict in the DRC….
21 December 2009 1:13PM
@Mildubmeo ”Here’s a novel idea,why not lay the blame fairly and squarely on individuals who committed these attrocities.” ”Stop the handwringing cries of Mea Culpa.”
There is no debate about the Congo and it’s FIVE MILLION dead because no one cares about the Congo.27 comments on CIF threads speaks volumes.As Johan Hari reported last year: The deadliest war since Adolf Hitler marched across Europe and YOU are certainly carrying a blood soaked chunk of slaughter in your back pocket.When you look at the Congo and the cliches of Africa reporting tumble out, ‘Tribal Conflict’, ‘Heart of Darkness’,It isnt.United Nations investigations found it was a war of ‘Armies of Business’, seizing metals that make our 21st Century zing and bling.The war is about you. The UN names the international cooperation involved, Anglo American,Standard Chartered Bank,Deer Veers, and one hundred others, But our governments told them to stop criticizing the coorperations. Meanwhile a pathetic UN force of 17,000,fails to protects civillians from slaughter’.

21 December 2009 3:26PM
If people dont care, they cant be made to care.
We care more about African wild life populations.
The slaughter will continue unabated.

Comments on this page are now closed.

DR Congo: Civilian Cost of Military Operation is Unacceptable

Enhanced Protection Urgently Needed Due to Disastrous Toll on Civilian Populations

The Congolese government’s military operation in eastern Congo, Kimia II, backed by United Nations peacekeepers and aimed at neutralizing the threat from a Rwandan Hutu militia group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), has resulted in an unacceptable cost for the civilian population, said 84 humanitarian and human rights groups in the Congo Advocacy Coalition today. 
The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials, who are due to meet in Washington, DC, this week to discuss the situation in eastern Congo and the wider region, to take immediate steps to increase protection for civilians. 

“The human rights and humanitarian consequences of the current military operation are simply disastrous,” said Marcel Stoessel of Oxfam. “UN peacekeepers, who have a mandate to protect civilians, urgently need to work with government forces to make sure civilians get the protection they need or discontinue their support.” 

Since the start of military operations against the FDLR militia in January 2009, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed, 7,000 women and girls have been raped, and over 6,000 homes have been burned down in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu. Nearly 900,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and live in desperate conditions with host families, in forest areas, or in squalid displacement camps with limited access to food and medicine. 

Satellite imagery collected by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) provides visual confirmation of the widespread destruction of homes and villages. In Busurungi, one of the main towns in the Walualoanda area (North Kivu) and the surrounding 100 square kilometers, AAAS estimates that 1,494 homes and structures have been destroyed, some as recently as September, amounting to an estimated 80% destruction rate. (For a selection of the images, see

Many of the killings have been carried out by the FDLR militia who are deliberately targeting civilians to punish them for their government’s decision to launch military operations against the group. Congolese government soldiers have also targeted civilians through killings and widespread rape, looting, forced labor, and arbitrary arrests. 

In a bleak calculation by the coalition, for every rebel combatant disarmed during the operation, one civilian has been killed, seven women and girls have been raped, six houses burned and destroyed, and 900 people have been forced to flee their homes. 

Sexual violence has grown even more brutal in areas affected by the Kimia II operation. “We’re seeing more cases of mutilation, extreme violence, and torture in sexual violence cases against women and girls, and many more of the victims are children,” said Immaculée Birhaheka of Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF). 

Some previously displaced people in the Kivus have returned home to areas that have become relatively secure. But the ongoing military operations have caused new displacement of civilians in Masisi, Rutshuru, Lubero, Walikale, Kabare, Kalehe, Walungu, Shabunda, and Uvira territories of North and South Kivu, as well as in southern Maniema and northern Katanga provinces. Many civilians who have recently left displacement camps around Goma and elsewhere have moved on to secondary displacement sites since they fear returning home. 

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, has backed the Congolese army in the Kimia II operation since March, following a joint Rwandan and Congolese military operation against the FDLR militias, some of whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. According to UN statistics, 1,071 FDLR combatants have given up their arms and been repatriated to Rwanda since January. The group’s estimated strength before military operations began was 6,000 to 7,000 combatants. Many reports indicate that the FDLR has recruited new combatants to replace some of those who have been repatriated. 

UN peacekeepers provide significant backing for the Kimia II operation, including tactical expertise, transport and aviation support, as well as food rations, fuel, and medical support to Congolese army soldiers, at an estimated cost of well over US$6 million. Despite such support, UN peacekeepers have not used their leverage to get the government to remove commanders with known track records of human rights abuses from participating in the operations. 

“With an investment this big, the UN has clout and should not remain silent when abuses occur,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UN needs to make it clear that if the Congolese government wants its continued military support, the army should remove abusive soldiers from command positions and its soldiers should stop attacking civilians.” 

Reprisal attacks against unarmed populations by the FDLR militia have made the task of protecting civilians increasingly complicated for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers. Yet the 3,000 additional UN peacekeepers authorized by the UN Security Council in November 2008 are only just arriving in eastern Congo, and the helicopters and intelligence support requested by UN officials have still not materialized. 

The coalition said that disarming the FDLR militia should remain a top priority for the Congolese government and UN peacekeepers, but that they need to act urgently to improve protection of civilians. The coalition urged diplomats and UN officials meeting in Washington, DC, at the Great Lakes Contact Group, to:
1. Press for a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach toward disarming the FDLR militia that emphasizes protecting civilians. This would include taking into custody and opening judicial proceedings against those wanted for genocide and other more recent serious crimes, including the FDLR leadership based in Europe and elsewhere, and reforming the disarmament and demobilization program, among other measures.
2. Push for accountability to ensure that those responsible for serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, are prosecuted regardless of rank. Press the UN to make its support conditional on effective action by military authorities to curb abuses against civilians.
3. Press the Congolese government to develop and put into effect an action plan to prevent and end the recruitment of children into the Congolese army and other armed groups, and insist that commanders cooperate with child protection specialists screening troops for children among their ranks.
4. Support comprehensive military reforms by the Congolese government, with strict controls on how donor funds are used.
5. Ensure that UN peacekeepers have the resources urgently needed to carry out their mandate to protect civilians. 

Notes to editors

The Congo Advocacy Coalition is a group of Congolese and international nongovernmental organizations established in 2008 to focus attention on the protection of civilians and respect for human rights in eastern Congo’s peace process. The following organizations are members of the coalition’s steering committee:
ActionAid, Enough, Human Rights Watch, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, War Child Holland, Conseil Régional des Organisations Non Gouvernementales de Développement (CRONGD) – North Kivu, Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF) – North Kivu, Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix (ICJP) – South Kivu, and Association des Femmes Juristes du Congo (AFEJUCO) – South Kivu.

Other Signatories:

International NGOs: Beati i costruttori di pace (Blessed Are the Peacemakers) Italy, Change Agents for Peace International (CAPI), Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Cooperazione Internazionale (COOPI), Global Witness, International Crisis Group, Johanniter-Unfall-Hilfe e.V. – International Assistance, Norwegian Church Aid in the Great Lakes, Refugees International.

Congolese NGOs: Action de Promotion et d’Assistance pour l’Amelioration du Niveau des Vies des Populations (APANIVIP), Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l’Homme à Shabunda (ACADHOSHA), Action Paysanne pour la Reconstruction et le Développement Communautaire (APREDECI), Action Pour Enfants Oubliés (APEO), Action pour la Promotion de la Femme et de l’Enfant (APFE), Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement (ASPD), ADIF, AFCD, AFECEF, AFEM, ALCM, AMALDEFEA, AMUD, APED, APEF, APROSEM, Association des Volontaires du Congo (ASVOCO), BDENA, Blessed Aid, Carrefour d’Idées Pour le Développement Integral (CIDI)/NK, CDNK, CEDAC, Centre d’Appui pour le Développement Rural Communautaire (CADERCO), Centre de Recherche sur l’Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme (CREDDHO), Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches en Education de Base pour le Développement Intégré (CEREBA), Centre Olame, Coalition Congolaise pour la Justice Transitionelle (CCJT), Collectif des Associations Feminines pour le Developpement (CAFED), Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo (COJESKI), Construisons la Paix et le Developpement Integral (COPADI), Cover Congo, CRONGD Sud Kivu, Encadrement des Femmes Indigenes et des Femmes Vulnerables (EFIM), ERND Institute, FIDES, GAMAC, Group d’Assistance aux Marginalises (GAM)- Kabare, Group de Travail Climat, Group d’Etudes et d’Actions Pour un Développement Bien Défini (GEAD), Groupe Jeremie, Heritiers de la Justice, LAV, Le Centre de promotion socio-sanitaire (CEPROSSAN), LUCODE, OCET, PAMI, Programme de Promotion des Soins de Santé Primaires (PPSSP), Programme du Developpement Sociale (PRODES), Promotion de la Démocratie et Protection des Droits Humains (PDH), RECOPRIBA, REDD, Reseau des Associations de Droits de l’Homme (RADHOSKI), Réseau Provincial des ONGs de Droits de l’Homme (REPRODHOC)-Nord Kivu, RFDP, SARCAF, SIDE, Solidarite Feminine pour la Paix et le Developpement Integral (SOFEPADI), Solidarité pour la Promotion sociale et la Paix (SOPROP), Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS), UCOOPANOKI, Union des Comites pour le Developpement (UCODE), UPADERI, UWAKI, VODER, Volontaires d’Autopromotion Solidaires (VAS).

Will Hillary speak out over mass rape in Congo?

As Congo’s rape crisis spirals out of control, Hillary Clinton’s visit must help urge the international community to rethink its support for an offensive that has forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes, reports Oxfam’s Marcel Stoessel. 

This afternoon I’m supposed to be attending a meeting with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who flew into Congo last night. She’s here to meet victims of sexual violence from the conflict in the east of the country, and to work towards solutions for ending Congo’s rape crisis. She couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time. Rape is widespread here, and cases have increased dramatically in the past few months.

I remember a woman I met in the remote Lubero territory of North Kivu Province. She told me she witnessed a gang rape of another woman by three armed men. It is almost impossible to describe the scenes she told me, but she was so brutally raped that she later died of internal bleeding. The witness, the woman I talked to, fled the area in terror. So did thousands of other unnamed victims in the past few months.

This terrible story happened in a very remote area of eastern Congo, an area Hillary Clinton will not visit today, and an area where UN-backed military operations are ongoing. The perpetrators are often part of an illegal armed group, but equally often they are part of the Congolese army, supported by the UN, which is in turn supported by the US government. They are likely never to be punished. I wish I would be able to relay that story directly to Hillary today, and I am sure she would be as revolted as I was and think the same as I do: that men who commit such abuses, whether they are the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels or members of the Congolese army, should not get away with it. They must know that one day they will be punished and that justice will come to Congo.

Oxfam staff recently conducted a survey of almost 600 civilians in North and South Kivu Provinces. Every single community we spoke to was terrified, and more than half said rape has increased since January, when new military operations began. Thousands of women have been raped since, civilians told us.

The recent phase of these operations, known as “Kimia II”, is now being supported by the UN Security Council and MONUC, the peacekeeping force, which is deployed to protect civilians. Kimia II was supposed to target the FDLR rebel group – which has been responsible for horrific attacks on civilians – and make life better for these communities. But so far, the offensive has had the contrary effect, and rape has surged as a result. Villagers have told Oxfam staff of children as young as four, and even men, also being raped. Many of these rapes are committed by the FDLR, but more than half of the rapes reported in North Kivu were attributed to elements of the Congolese army.

If Hillary Clinton asks me what she can do to reduce rape in eastern Congo, I will tell her first of all that the US government, and the rest of the international community, needs to urgently rethink its support for an offensive that has – according to UN figures – forced more than 800,000 people to flee their homes, and has resulted in rape cases spiralling out of control. The military option must not be the only strategy. It is always the civilians – the women, children and men of Eastern Congo – who pay the highest price for any military operation.

But ultimately, the thousands of rape cases in Congo are symptomatic of wider problems: years of conflict; an undisciplined national army which has not been paid for months; and rampant impunity which sees rapists and attackers rarely if ever brought to justice. The US and others must help establish a political process to address the root causes of the conflict. They must also pressure and support the Congolese government to comprehensively reform its army, police and judicial institutions.

I had the privilege to meet the DRC President, HE President Kabila, in March. He was very open to hear the stories of ordinary civilians, stories that are possibly not always reported to him through his own channels. The President seemed thoroughly committed to ending impunity in his security forces. He told our delegation about the new “zero tolerance” policy for any kind of sexual violence in the ranks of the security forces. Hundreds of thousands of people hope that this policy will turn into reality, although so far only a handful of perpetrators have been arrested. But a long way starts always with the first steps.

I hope that Secretary Clinton will support President Kabila in the implementation of this policy. I hope she will also make sure that the UN Security Council, of which the United States is an important member, will not endorse any support to military operations, which make things worse rather than better for the women and girls of eastern Congo. High-level politicians told me in recent months that “things have to get worse before they get better” in Congo, that the humanitarian fallout of the current operations is the “price for peace” to be paid. Nothing is further from the truth.

The ordinary civilians in these remote and forgotten areas tell us that things have indeed got much worse, but they have little or no hope that they will get any better. The “price for peace”, as the international community seems to want to call it, is too high for them.

Congo: If only the world would not look away

Marcel Stoessel’s journey through war-torn eastern Congo reveals desperate need on a huge scale that the world must not ignore.

Congolese soldiers patrol in eastern Congo, January 2009.
Congolese soldiers patrol in eastern Congo, January 2009.

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.

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Oxfam breaks news on the BBC about humanitarian consequences of Kimia II

Congolese flee widespread unrest

FDLR rebels in the eastern DR Congo. File photo

Many of the FDLR fled to DR Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide

Some 250,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been
displaced following an operation to flush out Hutu rebels, aid agency
Oxfam has said.


The joint operation against the rebels earlier this year was hailed as a great success by both Rwanda and DR Congo.
But now that the better-trained and equipped Rwandan army has left
DR Congo, the Hutu militia is reportedly re-emerging from the forests.

Oxfam says various armed groups are now attacking civilians in the east.

Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam’s country director in DR Congo, said the
continued insecurity in North Kivu Province was making it difficult to
deliver aid to those displaced.
“There is widespread looting, burning of villages and an unacceptable peak of sexual violence,” he told the BBC.

Tens of thousands of people are fleeing from around the town of
Kanyabayonga towards Lubero, a more populated area where they felt
safer, he said.

“Oxfam is very worried that continued military operations are having
a serious effect on the people who’ve had to flee their homes,” he

On-and-off fighting involving the Hutu FDLR militia, the army and
other militias has already displaced more than one million people in
North Kivu since late 2006.

No pay

The BBC’s Africa analyst Mary Harper says reports from the area
indicate that it is members of the Congolese army and the FDLR militia
that are attacking civilians, each accusing them of supporting the other


The fact that Congolese soldiers have not been paid for the past three months adds to the problem.
They are hungry, frustrated and probably terrified of attack from the many armed groups in the region, she says.
It seems the FDLR has not been crushed at all, she adds, rather that
it engaged in a tactical retreat, vanishing for a few weeks only to
reappear as a determined fighting force.
The FDLR’s presence in DR Congo lies behind years of unrest in the region.
Some of the group’s leaders are accused of taking part in the 1994
Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus
were slaughtered.
After the 1994 genocide, many of those responsible crossed into DR Congo as Tutsi rebels took power in Rwanda.
Rwanda has twice invaded DR Congo, saying it wants to stop the FDLR from staging attacks.