Congo: Caught in the Crossfire [Photos]
The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo remains one of the most volatile areas in Africa. An ongoing Congolese army military offensive, supported by United Nations peacekeeping troops, against a rebel group based in eastern Congo has so far forced an estimated 900,000 people to flee their homes. All told, a staggering 1.8 million people are believed to be displaced in eastern Congo. Most end up in unsanitary and overcrowded camps, unable to work and with little food, clean water and medical care. The International Rescue Committee has been aiding the people of Congo since 1996.
Text and photos by Peter Biro/The IRC
The situation in eastern Congo has worsened since the launch of a series of military offensives against the rebels known as the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The FDLR has been accused of participating in the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda and has been terrorizing Congo ever since. Civilians are caught in the crossfire every day and many are directly targeted.
Although another rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), has thrown its lot in with the government and is now fighting alongside the Congolese army, it has not brought more security to the region. Late last year, a widely leaked report by the United Nations’ own experts concluded that the offensive had not only failed to rein in the rebels, but had worsened the already dire plight of civilians there.
Displaced civilians end up in large camps. Most are already filled with tens of thousands of people who have fled previous fighting. The camps’ makeshift shelters are crowded and suffer from disease and a lack of food. The IRC and other aid groups are currently battling an outbreak of cholera in Mungote camp, North Kivu’s largest.
Ruti Riziki, 30, arrived in Mungote camp after fleeing her village of Bukala, a day’s walk away. Government troops moved into Bukala only to be met by the rebels. “Many people were killed in the crossfire,” Ruti says. “I saw dead bodies in the street. I saw men with guns looting houses and then walking away with everything, even mattresses. The only thing I managed to bring with me was a frying pan. ”
Over 30,000 people live in Mungote camp. “The scale of the suffering is massive,” says Danielle de Knocke van der Meulen, who runs the IRC office in Goma, North Kivu’s main city. “The military offensive has scattered the rebel FDLR force into smaller groups, making ever larger areas of North and South Kivu more insecure.”
Some 900,000 people have fled the fighting in eastern Congo over the past year. “People arrive here every week,” said Moses Bwakere Mulihano, an elder in the North Kivu’s Muhanga camp. “Last week 150 people came.” This man is building a home from straw and tree branches which he gathered in the bush.
Unable to grow their own crops, the camp’s residents rely on United Nations food rations. But they are not distributed regularly, the residents say. This boy contributes to his family’s income by collecting and selling firewood. For his efforts he will make about 2,000 Congolese francs (less than 3 US dollars) a week.
Many people in eastern Congo have been displaced for years. As a result, schools have sprung up near the camps. Here, IRC education supervisor Noé Kabano leads the class in a song.
School children, especially the older ones, have trouble concentrating, according to Kwabo Luendo, a teacher in one of the schools. “Most families have been forced to flee several times and the children are stressed and traumatized,” he says.
The IRC is providing students with school books, but is also building new classrooms, washing facilities and latrines.
The conflict in Congo results in as many as 45,000 deaths every month, according to the IRC. Most of them are the result of malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, malnutrition and other non-violent causes. All are preventable and treatable with basic health care and nutrition. A majority of the victims are children.
A boy suffering from malaria is comforted by his mother in an IRC-supported clinic by near Kiwanja, North Kivu. Branded the worst emergency to unfold in Africa in recent decades, the conflict in Congo has claimed the lives of 5.4 million people.
Noela M’Nagashenyi, 33, lost her baby after she was forced to give birth in the bush, far from a clinic or medical care. “There was no one to help. My friends didn’t know how to deliver a baby. It was very painful. In the end I lost the baby. It was a boy. He was buried under a tree.” Noela almost died from blood loss before she was brought to a hospital on a makeshift stretcher. Shortly after her ordeal, Noela became pregnant again and gave birth to a healthy girl, Jolie.
A brutal and distinguishing characteristic of the conflict in Congo is rape and sexual violence. Julie (not her real name) and her husband were lying in bed in their small village when eight armed men burst into their house wielding machetes and automatic rifles. “They went to my husband first,” Julie recalls. “They cut open his stomach with a machete and he fell over in agony, bleeding. Then two of the men raped me. When I tried to resist, they cut my arms with the blade. When they finally left, they took our goat and our chicken.”
As much as 80 percent of the rapes committed in eastern Congo are believed to be carried out by members of armed militias or the regular Congolese armed forces, according to Sarah Mosely, the coordinator of IRC programs that help survivors of sexual violence. “Women and girls bear the brunt of the fighting here,” she says. “They cannot find safety from violence anywhere: in their homes, while farming, on the road to school or the market, collecting firewood, or in camps for displaced people.”