Christmas Fear in the Heart of Africa

Marcel Stoessel visits the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where people terrorised by the Lord’s Resistance Army live in fear.

A house abandoned during an LRA attack. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
A house abandoned during an LRA attack. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam

Last week I travelled to the geographic centre of Africa, the rainforest and savannah lands of north east Democratic Republic of the Congo. It’s an area where the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) roams in small groups, killing, mutilating, abducting, stealing from, and terrorising the local population. It took days to get to Niangara, one of the most remote field bases that Oxfam runs.

Hundreds of thousands of people in this region still can’t return home, including the survivors of the Christmas massacres of 2009, when more than 350 were brutally killed, and more than 250 kidnapped in just four days. On the anniversary of the attack on 14 December, together with the community we honoured the dead with a minute of silence followed by speeches in which the people who can’t return home expressed feeling forgotten by their own government and by the international community.

An Oxfam Well in Niangara. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
Oxfam-constructed well in Niangara. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam.

The next day, we drove north to a town called Nambia. We passed many empty, abandoned villages and an 8km stretch of road dubbed “le couloir de la mort” – the corridor of death. Most people had fled Nambia, but about 5,000 brave people remain. Oxfam has rehabilitated water points in this area, significantly reducing the danger of death, rape or abduction for women, who no longer have to walk miles and miles to fetch water.

An Oxfam meeting in Nambia. Photo: Marcel Stoessel/Oxfam
An Oxfam meeting in Nambia. Photo: Pierre Peron/Oxfam

But people still face the same threat when they venture out to their fields. This is more relevant than ever at this time of the year: as the harvesting season starts, survival for the months ahead depends on safe access to the fields. Our meeting with the community was sad and tense. They feel unprotected, dispensable: “How long will we have to live in fear?” they asked me. “We keep telling our stories, but when will the world do something?” One middle-aged man wondered aloud “if our president even knows Nambia exists,” looking at me intently as if the eye contact would increase his chances for a dignified life.

I promised the community that Oxfam is doing everything it can to bring this unacceptable situation to the attention of the world. Shortly afterwards, I found myself being interviewed over satellite phone by the BBC, Radio France International and Voice of America, and on many Congolese radio and TV stations. On 17 December, the last day of last year’s massacres, I get three minutes of speaking time via video-link to members of the Security Council in New York. Will anyone be listening to the voices of ordinary women and men from Nambia? One thing is sure: the people living in the heart of Africa will be praying to be heard this Christmas.

Nineteen agencies call for action to prevent another Christmas massacre by Africa’s most brutal rebel group » Oxfam News Blog

New report says the Lord’s Resistance Army is now the most deadly militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo
The international community needs to act to prevent another Christmas massacre and the almost daily killing sprees by the most brutal and long-running rebel group in Africa said aid agencies in a new report released today. Massacres meted out by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) against remote communities in Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the past year have been among the worst in the LRA’s 20-year bloody history.

New figures show that over the past two years the LRA has become the most deadly militia in the DRC. In the last year alone more than 1,000 people have been killed or abducted in nearly 200 separate attacks in two remote districts of DRC – almost four attacks a week across an area approximately the size of the UK.

On Christmas Eve 2008 and over the following three weeks, 865 women, men and children were savagely beaten to death and hundreds more abducted by the LRA in north-eastern DRC and southern Sudan. Last Christmas, between 14 and 17 December 2009, LRA commanders oversaw the killing of more than 300 people. These attacks have largely gone unnoticed by the outside world.

“It is unbelievable that world leaders continue to tolerate brutal violence against some of the most isolated villages in central Africa and that this has been allowed to continue for more than 20 years,” said Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in DRC. “This Christmas families in north-eastern Congo will live in fear of yet another massacre, despite the presence of the world’s largest peacekeeping mission.”

The LRA is highly mobile and attacks women as they perform their daily tasks – fetching water or tending to their fields – and children as they return from school. The LRA abducts, mutilates, rapes and kills women, men and children, using extreme violence against the most vulnerable.

A new report, ‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ launched today by 19 humanitarian and human rights organisations says the safety and welfare of women, men and children across the vast LRA-affected area must finally be given the decisive attention it demands.
“The LRA is mostly comprised of abducted or coerced adults and children who have been forced to commit horrific acts against their community, making it impossible for them to return home,” said Mark Waddington CEO of War Child UK. “Children are forced to kill and rape, and many are used as ‘sex slaves’.

“This must not be allowed to continue. The international community must work harder to implement the recommendations in the report and promote the safe release of LRA abductees and support their reintegration back into their families and daily life, particularly girls, who are often neglected in such processes.”

Previous efforts to apprehend the LRA have failed, the report says. In December 2008 Operation “Lightning Thunder”, a military offensive against the LRA, failed to capture any senior rebel commanders. The offensive only prompted brutal retaliations against communities and pushed the LRA further from their native Uganda across an area 20 times larger than before.

Recent signs of diplomatic commitment from the African Union and United States must provide tangible answers that protect the population from violence and find peaceful solutions, agencies say. That should include focusing on the realities of national armies’ capacity to keep civilians safe from the LRA, one of the major weaknesses in strategies to date.

“As a regional problem the LRA is no one government’s responsibility,” said Stoessel. “The United Nations Security Council has long neglected to put the LRA as a specific agenda item and has failed to respond seriously to atrocities.
“The international community and regional governments must work together so that families can finally tend to their fields and sleep in their homes free from fear.”

‘Ghosts of Christmas Past’ is launched today. It is produced by organisations working in the affected countries or advocacy groups with a long-standing commitment to resolving the LRA threat: Broederlijk Delen, Cafod, Christian Aid, Conciliation Resources, Cordaid, Danish Refugee Council, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Intersos, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, Pax Christi Flanders, Peace Direct, Refugees International, Resolve, Society For Threatened Peoples, Tearfund, Trocaire, War Child UK, World vision.
Sign a petition to help make families in central Africa safer this Christmas at
Oxfam is currently assisting more than 120,000 people affected by LRA violence in Haut-Uélé, province Orientale, DRC.

BBC en francais: un engagement plus ferme pour addresser la situation LRA en Afrique Centrale

L’ONG britannique fait partie des 19 signataires d’un document qui demande à la communauté internationale de respecter les engagements pris pour lutter contre l’Armée de résistance du Seigneur, qui opère en Afrique centrale. Le correspondant de la BBC à Kinshasa, Thomas Hubert, a interviewé Marcel Stoessel depuis notre studio de Dakar.

Let’s not give up on the Congo

In DRC, Oxfam projects have brought clean, safe water to over 55,000 people in one remote area alone, protecting them not only from disease but also from attacks by rebel groups.

I drank that water myself and did not get diarrhea or cholera.

Overcoming poverty and suffering is a noble cause, isn’t it? In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there is chronic military conflict, horrendous human rights abuses, and poverty so severe that the country ranks among the bottom ten in the Human Development Index, it seems impossible, doesn’t it?

It is a noble cause, but also a difficult one. Many people do not feel safe, corruption is rampant, and the government does not have authority over much of its territory. Even where it does, its soldiers are sometimes perceived as a threat equal to the many armed groups everyone always talks about.

DR Congo has a population of 66 million people. Most live in extreme poverty, millions live in situations of conflict and abuse, and everyone suffers from bad governance. Overcoming all of this may sound like an impossible task. Why should anyone give money to Oxfam for an impossible task? “Let the Africans solve their own problems,” I sometimes hear, even from my friends.

Here is the good news: it is not an impossible task, and Oxfam helps people solve their own problems, rather than imposing solutions on them.

Last week, I sat on rocks in a very remote village in South Kivu. Many children were around me – children who could be the next generation of Congolese leaders. Clean water, captured from a natural spring that had recently been rehabilitated by Oxfam, was flowing out of a pipe. I filled my bottle from that spring capture system and was so relieved to drink it, exhausted as I was from the many hours it had taken to get to the village.

I didn’t get diarrhoea or cholera from drinking that water, but this hadn’t been the case until very recently for the local people there. All over the world, and particularly in the Congo, people die simply because they don’t have access to clean water. The system Oxfam constructed with the local communities and authorities is very simple and doesn’t require much maintenance. But it works. All the children around me wanted to drink the same water and they smiled.

The next day, I visited a much bigger Oxfam water project, where 55,000 people now have clean water after only three months of work. Again, it is thanks to a simple system: gravity takes dirty river water down to a sand filter. Yes, sand and gravel cleans water, if it flows slowly through it. Sand is readily available in that part of Congo. The water goes slowly through the gravel and sand and by the time the water reaches the town there is no trace of bacteria left.

Local material, local resources, and the engagement of communities and local authorities: that is the recipe to keep people clear of deadly disease. It works. Recently, I visited a water project Oxfam finished more than 15 years ago and people still had clean water.

If people have clean water close to their homes, they do not expose themselves to the many risks coming from rebel groups and the Congolese army during their search for water. If people can get clean water without having to walk 10km every day, they can engage in productive activities and spare more money to send their children to school. In short: clean water reduces disease and gives people a chance to get themselves out of poverty.

So overcoming poverty and suffering in the Congo is possible on a small or large scale. It is very difficult. But it is possible. Oxfam is there. Let us persevere and let’s not give up on the Congo.