Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, Population

DEVELOPMENT: A Humanitarian Disaster Unfolds in Eastern DRC

Michael Deibert

KIBUMBA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mar 1 2008 (IPS) - In a mist-shrouded valley between the Mount Nyiragongo volcano and a pair of its dormant cousins looming in Rwanda to the east, nearly 3,000 souls wait in limbo, having fled a conflict that has succeeded in making this lush corner in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) nothing less than hell on earth for its people.

Kibumba camp, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

Kibumba camp, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Michael Deibert/IPS

"We arrived here fleeing the war," says Gilbert Naimrwango, president of the Kibumba camp&#39s displaced persons association and a primary school teacher in his former life, speaking amidst a sprawling collection of grass and banana-leaf huts covered with thin sheets of tarpaulin. As he speaks, he is surrounded by dozens of other residents and shoeless children, some with distended bellies and reddish hair that suggest severe malnutrition. "Life here is very complicated, and we have much difficulty finding food."

"Here we are with women and children, with little food, little water, where bandits can get us," adds Rusigariye Nubaha, a 54-year-old farmer who says he fled conflict in the district of Rutshuru, to the north, in late November.

The camp took shape in November 2007 amidst brutal fighting between army forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila, backed by the government&#39s local paramilitary allies such as the Patriotes Résistants Congolais (Congolese Resistance Patriots, PARECO), and the army of renegade general Laurent Nkunda. An ethnic Tutsi, Nkunda leads the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP), a politico-military organisation.

Further poisoning an already lethal mix, the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR) – a group with its roots in Rwanda&#39s 1994 genocide, and comprised mainly of ethnic Hutus – also took part in the fighting.

Nkunda claims to be defending the rights of Tutsis in North Kivu, where much of the fighting has been centered, as well as in neighbouring South Kivu. Both provinces straddle a mineral and timber-rich area, collectively abutting the borders of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

The Kabila government for its part has claimed that Nkunda is little more than a proxy for Rwanda itself, where a Tutsi-led government has ruled since toppling the Hutu regime that attempted the extermination of Tutsis and Hutu moderates over a decade ago, killing an estimated 800,000 people. All sides in the conflict have been accused of gross human rights abuses.

Intense combat and attendant atrocities, including widespread rape and the forced recruitment of child soldiers, have succeeded in emptying whole villages, with residents fleeing to what they regard as safer ground. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that since 2003, some 800,000 people have been displaced by fighting in North Kivu out of a population of 4.2 million, or roughly one in five.

A report released in January by the International Rescue Committee relief organisation asserted that 45,000 people were dying monthly in Congo, largely as a result of health-related concerns caused by the social and economic disruption of the ongoing conflict. The report estimated that 5.4 million deaths occurred between August 1998 and April 2007, and about 2.1 million since the formal end of the DRC&#39s 1998-2002 civil war.

"Everybody&#39s victimised, even the people who have not been displaced: they are very poor and they have tremendous problems," says Johann Siffointe, emergency co-ordinator with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in Goma – the provincial capital of North Kivu. "It&#39s a protected emergency."

In Rutshuru itself, a three-hour drive north from Goma over deeply-pitted roads, the situation is no better. A sprawling displaced persons camp has taken over the grounds of a local school and aid workers say they have witnessed first-hand the conflict&#39s grievous toll.

"The conflict has made things worse as far as the situation with malnutrition, because most of the people farm for themselves," says James Cogbill Jr, an American physician working at a hospital run by the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders, MSF), in Rutshuru. "When they get displaced from their land, they automatically have no food source."

According to the sexual violence programme at the MSF hospital, the facility recorded 129 cases of sexual assault between the start of the year and mid-February, with the victims ranging in age from 11 to 80 years old.

Despite a tentative peace deal reached between the CNDP and the Kabila government at a conference in Goma in January there is still deep distrust between the actors in the conflict, and many refugees are reluctant to return home to the scene of previous fighting.

"The situation of exclusion and racial discrimination in this province, saying that some are more Congolese than others, continues," says Muiti Muhindo, an attorney in charge of external relations for Nkunda&#39s CNDP in Goma, proceeding to rattle off areas which he says have seen massive movement of military material in recent days.

"We need a commission of genuine national reconciliation, but on the contrary the government is moving arms from Kisangani towards Walikale, from Bunia towards Beni. They are preparing for war."

The government says that there have been clashes between CNDP and PARECO elements – although it claims these were minor – but it denies any plan for a return to full-scale conflict.

"We are observing the ceasefire," says General Vainqueur Malaya, overall commander of the Congolese army in the North Kivu region. "Things are improving slowly."

As darkness falls on Kibumba amidst the talk of renewed fighting, the residents of the camp, gathering outside their fragile shelters far from home, have a simple question.

"Our biggest preoccupation is this," says Faustin Seruhungo, a former student who lives in the camp with his family. "When will we be able to return home?"

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