Congo’s Civilians Slipping through the Cracks

by Katherine Conway

Just north of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are lined alongside a road ten kilometers from the ongoing battle between the Congolese army and the rebel group M23. More shocking than their precarious location is the dire humanitarian emergency within the settlements, including malnutrition, the absence of water, and the lack of health care. During a visit to the settlements, only one international organization was present, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Representatives made announcements regarding the outbreak of cholera and the process for reporting sexual violence. Both are widespread problems.

Where is the international response?

For decades, the eastern DRC has been mired in conflict that has devastated the civilian populace and forced people to either flee or get caught in the crossfire. The lack of food, clean water, security, and health care threaten the livelihoods of those in the IDP settlements, and yet the international community has not responded adequately.

The most recent surge in violence began in March 2012, when the rebel group, M23, defected from the Congolese armed forces, or the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). The group’s moniker refers to March 23rd, 2009, the date that the rebel group, National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), signed a deal to stop fighting with the government and integrate its fighters into the FARDC. Three years later, the ex-CNDP rebels that now make up M23 accused the government of reneging on its deal to provide good working conditions within the FARDC. M23 began seizing towns four months ago.

In the past four months, the fighting has displaced more than half a million people, and currently more than 600,000 are displaced in North Kivu. The 31 UN camps in North Kivu are over capacity, and much of the displaced population is slipping between the cracks of the humanitarian aid system. The total number of IDPs has surpassed 2 million for the first time since 2009.

Where is the response?

Driving just beyond the city limits of Goma, before reaching the IDP settlements, the UN and NGO presence is unmistakable. Additionally, the South African contingent of MONUSCO (the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) is based a few hundred meters from where the IDPs continue to settle. As we drove past the check points into what appears to be forgotten territory, our Congolese counterparts muttered about the UN’s inability to do anything, except watch people starve. Other than MSF, there was no humanitarian presence. The somber tone in these settlements urges the longstanding question: what is the role of the international community?

How can the aid system be so broken that it cannot reach the people who desperately need it?

To achieve long-term stability, the world community must address the root causes of the conflict, including ethnic identities, the lack of effective governance, and regional insecurities. The international community remains torn between working towards long-term peace and addressing the humanitarian emergency. Additionally, the Congolese government has yet to implement the reforms called for in the Great Lakes Pact, which outlines the protection of IDPs. Similarly, humanitarian organizations are at their limits in capacity, as they now face difficulties in reaching the displaced populations. They lack the capacity to meet the basic needs of all of the IDPs, not to mention the thousands of people still fleeing. Therefore, the IDPs have little support from their government or humanitarian organizations.

MONUSCO has increased its presence within Goma in response to the escalating fighting to help protect civilians. However, the reconfiguration of troops has weakened the force’s ability to respond to attacks by other rebel groups in the rural areas. In August, the Security Council reiterated demands that M23 cease operations and voiced concern about the humanitarian situation. Nevertheless, no new efforts were undertaken.

The Congo’s neighbors, seeing the deteriorating situation, have attempted to take action. The states of the Great Lakes Region considered the creation of a new African Union and UN force to combat M23. The neutral force is estimated to deploy to the region in three months, but thus far only Tanzania has committed troops. Additionally, an international fund was created that countries can donate to in support of humanitarian interventions in the DRC.

In spite of these developments, the only way to forestall the humanitarian disaster is a comprehensive effort between the UN, INGOs, and the Congolese military that focuses on the security of the population in North Kivu. The international community must keep pressure on the government and the UN to disarm M23 and other rebel groups. At the same time, the international community must implement a coordinated approach to providing humanitarian aid to the displaced population outside of the IDP camps must be implemented. Until then, the hundreds of thousands of people displaced from their homes will have to continue hoping against hope for help to arrive.

About the Author

Katherine Conway, a Masters candidate at The Fletcher School, recently completed an internship in Rwanda with Search for Common Ground.

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