Terrorised in Congo - GUARDIAN WEEKLY
Rebel fighters loyal to Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda have fought their way to the gates of Goma, driving tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. Subsequent killings and lootings by Congolese army troops do nothing to relieve the fear and displacement. Anna Husarska is a senior policy adviser for the International Rescue Committee; when she heard the news she phoned her colleagues in eastern Congo. Aid workers Lisa Bender and Jennifer Melton told her of their brutal attack last week by a succession of armed groups.
Anna Husarska says: Last week, as I watched the news from Congo – crowds of people displaced from their homes, forcing their way through the gates of some humanitarian agency, fighting for the scarce biscuits – my first instinct was to travel to Goma.
I wanted to be there not only because it is my job to write about the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons, but also because I have reported for this website in the past on widespread cases of violence and rape in this region.
But as quickly as I thought of going to Goma, I realised that the extreme tensions on the ground were forcing the agency for which I work, the International Rescue Committee, or IRC, to pull staff out to safety. This might sound counter-intuitive to those who expect aid agencies to rush into a conflict area. But the fact that our presence in parts of North Kivu was no longer possible is a measure of how quickly and dramatically the situation spiralled into chaos.
I spoke to two colleagues who had come under attack last week, on October 29, as they sought to flee the town of Kiwanja, two hours north of Goma. These young women – Lisa Bender, responsible for youth and child protection, and Jennifer Melton, head of programmes for rape victims and rape prevention – detailed what happened.
Lisa Bender: Just a week before the evacuation, I was writing to my friends back in the US: "The explosions have quieted in the last hour and now the predominant sounds are babies crying and children laughing… I’ll get into my big Land Cruiser and drive the bumpy road to my office. I'll wave at the children who run too close to the car, with special smiles for my favourite girls next door – Tantine, Alice and Sylvie. I am knitting their little brother Alliance a sweater and have already made a knitted bunny for Tantine."
Jennifer Melton: I remember that early on the day of the evacuation I rode my bike from my home to the IRC office. That was then. Now, a week later, Lisa and I are two hours away in Goma, in the middle of an evacuation.
When we learned that the troops of the rebel general Nkunda were advancing toward Rutshuru, us non-governmental organisations and UN agencies agreed on an evacuation plan. The UN peacekeepers, known by their French acronym, Monuc, were to escort all humanitarian staff to relative safety in the north of the province.
On October 29, eight IRC vehicles carrying us three foreigners (there was also a Guinean doctor), all the Congolese staff not originally from the region, and some of their family members (a total of 28 persons), drove a few kilometres toward the Monuc base. There we joined other humanitarian vehicles and formed a "protected" convoy, with UN tanks and Uruguayan peacekeepers in the front and back of the line.
As the convoy left the Monuc base, I remember that the local population started yelling and throwing rocks, making hostile gestures of throats being slit. Then came the attack by armed men.
Bender: Civilians and uniformed men* started shooting in the air and at our vehicles. Tires were slashed and stones were thrown, hitting the outside of our vehicles and windows. My front seat window was shattered and when it imploded my right arm suffered severe lacerations. The sight of my bleeding and the increased gunfire led to panic; many of the staff fled the vehicles to seek refuge in local houses and business premises.
When the attack on the humanitarian vehicles started, the Uruguayan peacekeepers, whose explicit task was to protect the convoy from an attack, vanished. They left us behind, unarmed aid workers and – in a few cases – their families, women, children and even babies.
Abandoned by Monuc, most of the other aid workers rushed with us to take refuge in the IRC compound, where the only safeguards left were a dubious padlocked gate and a key turned in the bathroom door. The shooting increased outside while we huddled, silent, in the small bathroom.
After two and a half hours the armed men used the butts of their guns to break down the door. Two or three of them entered, screaming in the local dialect. They were most likely demanding money and other valuables such as laptops and cell phones.
This part of the attack is too traumatic to recount in detail. Armed men were pushing guns against us, touching women inappropriately, assaulting men and women, screaming, taking grenades out and threatening to blow up our room. They made one of the men strip down. They shot at the feet of one of our colleagues from UNHCR. We all thought at one point that we might be raped or killed.
After this first, most aggressive group left, we had three more groups come into the room to demand money and search among our already scattered belongings.
At one point an armed man yanked Jennifer’s mobile phone from her hands and dragged her out of the room. I was horrified, expecting the worst, but Jennifer soon came back – terrified, but unhurt.
Melton: The attackers finally left the compound, after stealing one of the organisation’s four-wheel drives, 17 laptops (all but one, which they smashed), almost all personal and office mobile phones, iPods, cameras, medications and clothes.
After the attack, Indian UN peacekeepers arrived and we were taken in tanks to the Monuc base. From there, three days later, we were airlifted to Beni, in the north of the province. This second group of UN peacekeepers looked after us well. They did their best, and they ultimately got us on helicopters.
Finally, five days after the attack on the IRC compound in Kiwanja, Lisa and I flew on a chartered flight to Goma, which, in spite of the hair-raising scenes we all see on the TV screens, was a relatively safe place.
Bob Kitchen, IRC's country director, says: Dangerous as the current environment is in North Kivu, we decided to begin a humanitarian response. Displaced civilians are flooding into already overcrowded camps or taking shelter in public buildings. They need clean water, latrines, blankets and plastic sheeting to protect them from the season’s heavy rains. They have lost their homes and, once again, their sense of security. We cannot abandon the population now, when they need us most.
• Anna Husarska was speaking to her colleagues at the International Rescue Committee: Lisa Bender, Jennifer Melton and country director for Congo Bob Kitchen.
* Husarska: Of course my organisation knows who the attackers were, but it’s also true that all sides of the civil war in Congo disrespect the law. Naming one particular group here could only expose us to risk, and we must work on all sides of the fluid frontlines. Civilians in need are everywhere.