DR Congo: Human Rights and Gender Violence Situation in North Kivu

Child at a IDP camp in the Congo. As a result of heavy fighting in the nearby Masisi mountains, hundres of thousands of internaly displaced people (IDP) gathers in refugee camps outside of Goma. By Endre Vestvik

The following article by Spanish journalist Elia Varela Serra was originally publish in Global Voices Online.

Today is International Human Rights Day and, under the motto “Every human has rights,” this year’s marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also the last day of the yearly campaign 16 days of activism against gender violence. In many parts of the world, however, the human rights situation is far from ideal and gender violence is a daily threat. One of those places is the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as shown by this roundup of blogs written by aid workers in the region.

As an introduction, a reminder by journalist Michael Kavanagh:

“I’ve been reporting on DRC for five years now, and there’s nothing that frustrates me more than the dismissive comments I often get about how conflict in Africa is endemic.
Violence is rarely irrational — it almost always has root causes that can be addressed. We’re often just too busy or lazy to learn enough about a situation to figure out how.”

A few days ago Rebecca Wynn, a press officer with Oxfam, wrote about the displaced people (IDPs) in the Kibati area, north of Goma:

” The children I am meeting here in Kibati in the Democratic Republic of Congo are at school, but they get no education. The school is where they sleep. It’s their home. Ever since they fled from the violence in their villages, it’s where they have slept, with leaves as their mattresses and their bodies snuggled close.
[…] There are 21 villages of Kanyaruchinya, which surround the Kibati camps. Four of these villages are completely empty and the rest are full of thousands of people who have been forced to run from their homes. The population here was just under 19,000 people before the recent troubles, but an estimated 50,000 people have arrived in the camps and villages here over the last month. Of the families here, 65 percent are hosting displaced people. But many people are living in public spaces such as schools, churches, and orphanages.”

Gina Bramucci of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) also writes about the Kibati IDP camp, where around 5,000 people live “in unsound shelters – a frame of tree branches, a plastic sheet as a roof, dry banana leaves to fill gaps and act as a windbreak”:

“Firewood distribution in Kibati is important on several levels right now […] In conflict areas trips outside of the population center or camp in search of firewood and water expose civilians to a higher potential of violent attacks. In Congo, men and boys can be beaten, intimidated or forced into labour by armed groups. But the chore of collecting firewood falls to women and girls, and for them, the stakes are even higher.”

The danger she’s talking about is, of course, rape. Elizabeth Roesch, a gender and advocacy expert working for CARE, quotes a girl in a displaced camp:

“The other day, I asked a young girl who fled the most recent fighting, when she would go back home, and she replied: “As long as there is war, we won’t go back – how can we go back and risk being raped? When we go for water, when we go to the fields, we are afraid.” Other women nodded in agreement, and suddenly I understood how effective rape is at terrorizing communities.”

Stop the war in North Kivu, a blog written by an anonymous aid worker in Goma, has a short video of such IDP camps:

Stop the war in North Kivu also writes about the unofficial “taxes” that the CNDP (the rebel group led by Nkunda) has imposed on civilians in the area they control:

” -Long truck: 2000 U$ to get through.
-Fuso truck (small size): 500 U$ to get through.
-Toll for every vehicle: 50 U$.
-If you carry just a bag with some items that could be sold in the market: 5 U$
It is said around here that CNDP is a disciplined force in the sense that they don´t loot the population. Now I understand that they simply don´t need to do it. With this kind of tax procedure, looting becomes completely unnecessary.
Meanwhile, the price in Goma of first need commodities like beans has tripled in the last two months.”

Emily Meehan, communications manager for the IRC in Goma, writes about her recent arrival to North Kivu:

“[earlier this year] I was reading about the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly North Kivu, and wondering why we didn’t hear more about the ongoing humanitarian crisis there. I thought about the women and girls who have been raped and tortured by armed groups. I imagined Goma, North Kivu’s capital, to be a town under daily siege, with mortars blasting, windows shattering and machine gun fire crackling always in the distance. I imagined civilians running in hordes from clashes in the streets, screaming, moaning, and falling. My imagination was far from reality.
I arrived here in Goma last month […] and I quickly saw that this tragedy is not so obvious – people have been living with war for too long in Congo. It is not sensational. They carry on, their ‘everyday switch’ set on emergency.”

Women at an IDP camp in east DR Congo, by Endre Vestvick

Iker Zirion, working for Veterinarios sin Fronteras (VSF) in Butembo, writes [Es] a parable to illustrate the complexity of the armed conflict in North Kivu, in what he calls “three causes for one same effect“:

“Un soldado de las Fuerzas Armadas de la RDC que huye del frente entra en casa de Vital Kagheni buscando algo de comida. Le golpea. Aprovecha para robarle el dinero y el móvil. Más tarde, vuelve con otros dos soldados. Quieren algo más que dinero. Quieren a su mujer.
Al otro lado de ese frente del que huyen, el CNDP toma varias localidades. En la escuela de una de ellas, encuentran a Bertrand Kitambala. Tiene 13 años. En algunos países, hay personas que creen que esa edad es suficiente para empuñar un arma. Desgraciadamente, la RDC es uno de esos países.
Un miembro de las FDLR está escondido en el bosque. Lleva ahí mucho tiempo. Está cansado y tiene hambre. Hacia él se acerca, sin saberlo, Kakule Lukumbuka. Lleva una cabra atada con una cuerda. Cuando llega a su altura, el FDLR sale de su escondite y le dispara. Pero no antes de arrebatarle la cuerda de las manos. No tiene ganas de correr y no quiere que el disparo haga huir a la cabra.”

Translation:
“A Congolese Army soldier fleeing the frontline enters Vital Kagheni’s house looking for some food. He hits him. He then steals his money and mobile phone. Later, he comes back with two more soldiers. They want something more. They want his wife.
On the other side of the frontline they are fleeing from, the CNDP takes several towns. In the school of one of them they find Bertrand Kitambala. He’s 13. In some countries there are people that believe that’s old enough to take up arms. Unfortunately, the DRC is one of those countries. A member of the FDLR is hiding in the forest. He’s been there for a long time. He’s tired and he’s hungry. Unknowingly, Kakule Lukumbuka is walking towards him. He’s carrying a goat tied to a rope. When he arrives where the FDLR is, he comes out of his hiding place and shoots him. But not before snatching away the rope. He doesn’t feel like running and doesn’t want the shot to scare the goat away.”

In another post, Iker Zirion writes about starting over:

“¡Buenas tardes! El día ha pasado sin incidencias, pero en un ambiente de tristeza para casi todo el mundo. Nada se ha salvado. Hay que empezar nuevamente de cero”, nos dice vía sms APRONUT, oenegé de desarrollo congoleña y una de nuestras contrapartes en Kirumba. No es la primera vez. La población de la zona ha tenido que comenzar de cero varias veces desde la década de los noventa hasta hoy. ¿Qué se puede responder a un sms como ese? Yo, desde luego, no lo sé. Afortunadamente, otra persona del equipo tuvo más capacidad de reacción: “¡Animo! Empezaremos de nuevo todos juntos.”

Translation:
“Good afternoon! The day passed without incidents, but in an atmosphere of sadness almost for everybody. Almost nothing was salvaged. We have to start again from scratch”, tells us via sms the Congolese development NGO APRONUT that is one of our partners in Kirumba. It’s not the first time. The population in the area has had to start from scratch several times since the 1990s until now. What can we answer to an sms like this one? I really don’t know. Fortunately, another person from the team was able to react faster: “Come on! We will start again all together.”

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