Tens of thousands are on the run in eastern Congo as violence escalates | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 06.08.2009
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Tens of thousands are on the run in eastern Congo as violence escalates

All parties involved in the conflict in South Kivu commit atrocities. Civilians leave their villages and thousands flee to the forests to escape the looting and sexual abuse.

A refugee camp in a forest

Thousands are fleeing to refugee camps in the forests to escape the violence in eastern Congo

In mid-July Congolese government troops started a new campaign against Hutu rebels in the eastern part of the DRC. As a result, tens of thousands of civilians are on the run. This year alone more than half a million people in the region near the border with Rwanda have left their homes.

The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR has set up dozens of camp sites in the troubled South Kivu province. Its spokesman in Berlin, Rouven Brunnert, explains that inside the camps refugees are relatively safe. "But," he adds, "it is a fact that most of them are not living in a camp. We don't know how many are hiding in the mountains."

Others are seeking temporary shelter in churches, schools and other public buildings. "All are in need of water, food, blankets, jerry cans, mattresses and cooking utilities," says Brunnert.

All sides involved in atrocities

A woman carrying her child

Atrocities are committed by both sides more often than not on vulnerable civilians

Since the beginning of the conflict 10 years ago an estimated 1.7 million civilians have been forced from their homes. Over the years widespread atrocities have been reported. "In a conflict where rape has become a weapon, women are especially vulnerable," says Brunnert.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, has recently registered increased sexual violence against men as well. "Many civilians are so scared that even without an actual attack happening, they're leaving their villages," says spokeswoman Anna Schaaf at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

"People carrying arms are not paid. They go to the villages and basically help themselves. They take what they need, they take the food, they loot the villages, they burn them down. And the civilians are even hampered from going to their fields for harvesting," she says.

The ICRC reports human rights violations by all armed groups in eastern Congo, including government troops and does not exclude UN peace forces explicitly.

Denis Tull, an Africa researcher with the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, confirms the allegations against UN soldiers of rape, corruption and illegal trade. He is confident that they will be held to account for any wrongdoings. But he doubts whether the Congolese troops will face any legal consequences. And he concludes: "Without the UN presence, the situation in eastern Congo would even be worse."

Many refugees cut off

A young girl sitting on the ground

Refugees are having to flee to increasingly remote areas to escape the fierce fighting

"The ICRC has a constant dialogue with all the parties involved there," spokeswoman Anna Schaaf says, "and we do stress, when we meet them, that not respecting humanitarian law is a crime."

Although aid organisations are aware of the needs in eastern Congo, they are not always able to help the victims. The International Red Cross believes it is in a position to achieve more than many other NGO's.

"The ICRC tries to go to areas, that are quite dangerous to go to and quite difficult to reach, where other organisations are not able to work," says its spokeswoman. "Because we do have contacts with all the parties engaged in the fighting, there is actually a possibility for us to get security guarantees to go to those areas."

But even then an unknown number of refugees are left on their own in the vast forests of eastern Congo. There are no roads to reach them and there is no way to find them.

Author: Patrick Vanhulle
Editor: Rob Mudge

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