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DR Congo's Greatest Need Is Diplomacy, Aid Worker Says

Amid increasing violence in DR Congo, aid agencies are struggling to offer help for civilians. But more than anything else, the region needs a diplomatic solution, says one humanitarian aid spokesman.

A young woman, crying, carries her sibling on her back as she looks for her parents through the village of Kiwanja

A quarter of a million civilians have been displaced in the brutal fighting in DR Congo

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, m ore than 250,000 civilians have fled fighting between the nation's unruly armed forces and armed rebel groups. Meanwhile, both sides are accused of rape, killings and looting despite the presence of 17,000 "MONUC" troops, one of the world's largest UN peacekeeping operations.

Kai Henning is the Africa Program Officer for the Diakonie Emergency Aid (Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe,) the German Protestant Church's international aid organization. His group, which provides food and other assistance to the "internally displaced" Congolese, has had to evacuate their headquarters twice due to the violence. The group has temporarily shut down operations.

DW-WORLD: Mr. Henning, please describe the situation in DR Congo, as seen by an aid worker. What kind of help do people there need most?

The situation is really catastrophic. It's not that new: Fighting and militia activities and confrontations between the national army and rebel groups have been going on for years here and there. But it has escalated.

In the past two weeks, more and more civilians have been fleeing from the fighting and are displaced. The numbers are enormous -- we are talking about a quarter of a million people who have been displaced in the last two months alone.

Rebel leader Laurent Nkunda is surrounded by soldiers at his base in Tebero

The rebel troops are led by Laurent Nkunda

People hear gunshots and take their packs and walk 50 kilometers through the jungle just to get somewhere safer. These "internally displaced persons" -- that’s the word for refugees who did not cross borders -- become squatters in camps where they are hardly taken care of.

Or, the vast majority, they just arrive somewhere and are hosted by some sort of host families who themselves suffer from malnutrition, and hardly have any clean water or anything to eat.

What does your organization do, specifically?

At the moment the most important thing is getting emergency aid to people -- food, drink, and shelter. People need drinking water and blankets. They need other nonfood items like cooking utensils and hygienic kits.

Then the next step is establishing self-reliance of the people so they can grow their own crops. We are thinking of distributing tools and seeds for the people so they can grow their own food.

What challenges face aid workers trying to meet these needs?

Right now the biggest challenge is access. When there are fighting zones, then it is impossible for aid workers to go there without risking their own lives and the lives of their staff.

The other problem is that many of the displaced persons have fled to the jungle or national parks. Nobody knows how many people have gathered there for refuge. And for those who have arrived somewhere safely, the number of displaced persons is still so high that there is always more need than can be dealt with by humanitarian organizations.

There are continuing reports of sexual violence and rape against civilians. Does your organization take specific action to aid these victims?

This is a huge problem indeed. Among all of the groups … that raid or loot villages, or catch child soldiers, rape and sexual violence is a huge problem. That isn't just a recent development. It is a systematic weapon used in this war.

But the figures are hard to tell. Only the tip of the iceberg is being counted. First of all, medical and psycho-social consultation is hard to find. And many of the women survivors of sexual violence don't know where to go for treatment or support. And once people do know where to go, there is the problem of stigmatization and trauma. So only a very small number is able to be reached.

Women shelter under the eaves of a school now housing internally displaced in Kibati camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 11 Novemeber 2008.

Growing violence has seen an explosion in refugee camps

In this context, humanitarian organizations like Diakonie Emergency Aid really work on all sides. We offer medical treatment, psycho-social treatment, and also awareness building campaigns. … In our projects where we distribute food aid, we always have components that target victims of sexual violence.

What can people who aren't on site do if they want to help?

Any support is crucial, for example though donations. And we also need people to put on pressure for a peaceful solution. People should put pressure on politicians, pressure within the European Union.

But another, first step would also be to be aware of how this war is interlinked with our daily life. There are resources in the Congo, metals and minerals, that are used in the production of every mobile phone. So every time we pick up our mobile phone, we could think about whether we are somehow connected to the fighting going on.

So the first thing then is to be aware what role we are playing. The next step is to really start lobbying for some political solution which takes into account that interconnectedness.

The UN Security Council recently pushed back a decision on increasing the number of peacekeepers in the Congo, and people have criticized them for looking away. Likewise, EU foreign ministers recently said they have no plans to send more troops. How will the Congo fare without additional help?

When it comes to protecting the population, what Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe is asking for is secure access to those who are suffering. And for this, we really require a better outcome from MONUC, the UN peacekeeping force.

Woman waits in a Red Cross food camp at a refugee center

Displaced Congolese walk miles for refuge

It is hard to say where the problem is.…The mandate is there. But it seems to be one thing to know what the mandate is -- in our case, protecting the Congolese people -- and on the other hand, to know how to solve the underlying problems. For that, you need a political solution.

As we know, MONUC is the largest peacekeeping force in the world, and they haven't been fruitful in the last years.

There are widespread concerns that this conflict will spread to Angola, Rwanda and possibly beyond. What would that mean for international aid organizations?

The current escalation of the fighting, and all the problems in the Congo, go back to the 90s and the "African World War," as it was called, when at least five other African countries were involved. The problems from that time haven't been solved.

Currently, Angola is openly joining the fight, and the involvement of Rwanda, which has been going on throughout the years, is officially being recognized. These are part of the problem, but they also show part of the solution.

As the Congo is a very resource rich country, there are plenty of economic interests there. All parties want somehow to have a share in the resources. And in order to really achieve peace, all parties need to come together and reach an agreement.

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