Tens of thousands of people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have been fleeing a government offensive against Ugandan rebels, adding to the nearly 2.5 million people who have already become internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Reuben Brigety recently visited camps for the displaced and refugees. He spoke with allAfrica.com’s Saratu Abiola and Carine Umuhumuza of what he saw on his last trip and what he thinks the international community should do to improve the situation.
The people you saw in the camps for the internally displaced (IDPs) in the east, where do they come from? Are they mostly from mining towns? Does a town having mining concessions make it more prone to violence?
There are two categories of displaced people. There are refugees and internally displaced people. Refugees are people that are forced to cross international boundaries. Internally displaced people that have had to leave their homes but are still within their own country.
There are about 450,000 Congolese citizens that have been forced to be refugees, and therefore displaced across borders from Congo to the nine surrounding countries and its borders. And there are two million Congolese that are displaced internally inside their own country.
What causes that displacement and is there any linkage to mining concessions?
I personally do not have the analysis of the linkage between the minerals and the fighting, which is not to say that it’s not important. There are certainly other groups, advocacy groups, that note that minerals … help fuel conflict ... but that is not part of our analysis. The LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) does not appear to exist or to benefit from the trade in minerals.
But activist groups who pushed for anti-LRA legislation that was passed in the U.S. Congress last May seem to think that cutting off the mines will help end the conflict.
What I can say is that the vast majority of the internally displaced are displaced as a result of armed conflict. There are people in various other situations around the world that are displaced because of natural disaster or other sorts of circumstances but the vast majority of the displaced in the Congo are as a result of armed conflict.
What are the sources of the armed conflict? The LRA apparently at one point had something of a political agenda in Uganda but has since has just morphed into a complete predator of the population. We don’t know what the political solution for that is, but we are tasked by the president (Barack Obama) to come up with a broader strategy for addressing it.
The FDLR (the Democratic forces for Liberation of Rwanda) is comprised mostly of former genocidaires from Rwanda that fled to the Congo and remain in the bush and continue to clash with the government of Congo. The politics of those political/ military coalitions shift a great deal.
Part of the reason why they have continued to move is that they prey on the civilian population. That is essentially how they continue to get not only their converts [but also] get the resources necessary for their own survival. I completely understand and support [the] view of the importance of focusing on the mineral trade as part of an overall strategy for reducing violence. The question is who exactly is benefiting from that trade and how is that benefit actually contributing to the armed violence? That just requires a level of analysis that I have not seen. The Congolese government is essentially a weaker state and it’s hard to regulate the transporting of tantalum and coltan, the pet issues for the activists.
The anti-LRA legislation calls on the Obama administration to lead international efforts to end the threat to civilians posed by the armed group. What more can you tell us?
The legislation that the president signed in developing a counter strategy … is due by law in early November. We very much hope and expect to develop a strategy which will counter that threat and hopefully that scourge, that God-awful scourge for people in that portion of the Congo and surrounding countries.
Has it been easier getting resources to people that need them in these camps over the past few years, particularly under the recent administration? Have things improved? Are you satisfied with the UN’s efforts in the region?
For those populations that we have identified, we know where they are. We have been able as a government to continue to contribute to basic humanitarian infrastructure. We give about U.S.$45 million a year for our various partners in order to support that, and that’s a level that has been consistent for some time. The challenge though is that Congo is a massive country. The road infrastructure is incredibly poor. A lot of this fighting takes place in very rural and very isolated areas and that makes it difficult for us and difficult for humanitarian partners to have a completely detailed, accurate sense of the scale of the humanitarian crisis.
One of the things that’s been challenging, certainly with regard to the UN and caring for these two million IDPs, is that there is not a single agency in the UN system that has comprehensive responsibility for providing assistance to IDPs.
UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) has very clear responsibility for the treatment of refugees, which is why you see refugee camps. But for internally displaced they actually have responsibility for only a couple of sectors - for shelter, for healthcare. Responsibility for education is UNICEF‚ responsibility for water and sanitation is UNHCR and the responsibility for food is the WFP (World Food Program).
As a result of that two examples, two IDP camps, that I saw in Goma were two of the worst camps for displaced people I’ve seen anywhere in the world. The problem is that the UN system as a whole is not cooperating, in my judgment, effectively enough there. And, in fact, while I was there, I sat down with some of our colleagues and said we should not be prepared to accept this. There must be a better way for us to work better as donors and as the whole of the UN humanitarian community to improve our response for these IDPs. That’s certainly something that we will continue to work on.
Both Rwanda and Angola have many Congolese refugees and they would prefer for them to return to their home country. There are, however, problems of land tenure. Can these refugees return home and get their land? Is there any mechanism in place to facilitate that movement?
I can speak on Rwanda. I can’t speak on Angola with the same level of fidelity since I have not been there yet. There is a tripartite agreement that has been signed between UNHCR, Rwanda and the government of the DRC to help facilitate the return of those 53,000 Congolese refugees. As a result of that UNHCR is working on a plan with local tribal chiefs in Congo to prescreen those people that are in camps inside Rwanda to determine which ones of those are real refugees, which village did they come from‚ in order for them to return from their host communities with as little local friction as possible.
My understanding is that inside Congo that many of the Tutsis that would return are not ‘true Congolese’ but indeed are Tustis that are looking for more land because land is scarce in Rwanda.
This process that UNHCR is beginning to set up … is meant to be a mechanism by which those claims are adjudicated. It remains to be seen how successful that’s going to be. We certainly will do everything we can in order to support that process because, again, returning to your home country is the most important, durable solution for refugee populations.
The question is a very sensitive issue. The refugees want to go home, the Rwandans would like for them to go home, but I have to say Rwanda has been an extraordinary host to these people. Those camps, particularly Nyabiheke camp, is almost a picture perfect model for what a refugee camp ought look like, with the one exception being space, because they don’t have an awful lot of space. As refugee standards go, the healthcare is very good; education is good. They have job-training programs in masonry, in carpentry. They have basic literacy classes, particularly for women that are illiterate. The government has been incredibly supportive of those refugees but obviously we want to try to do our best to facilitate everybody going home, in an orderly safe, voluntary manner.
Congo is known as the rape capital of the world. According to research from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, rape violations by civilians – as opposed to those perpetuated by armed forces – have increased. Do we know if the incidence of rape has actually gone up or are more women coming forward and reporting rapes?
The short answer is we don’t know. We don’t know if there has actually been an increase because there’s been an increase, or if there’s been an increase because reporting has been increased. President [Joseph] Kabila has said repeatedly exactly the opposite and that there has been a decrease in incidents of rape, there actually is not much of a problem, which is of profound concern to us as a government. We don’t agree with that assessment. The extent to which you view the problem dramatically colors the extent to which you’re going to be engaged in solving it.
In a meeting that I had with the governor in North Kivu province, he said that they are ashamed of this reputation for rape that they have. They don’t want to be associated with it and that they are going to continue to do their best [against it]. One can obviously contrast that statement with whatever’s happening on the ground, but I think what it signifies importantly is that at least in North Kivu the political leadership understands the nature of the problem and is really dedicated to doing something about it. The secretary of state (Hilary Clinton) is personally deeply concerned about that issue. As such, a fair amount of our funding, a little over $30 million, is going specifically to advance support for gender-based violence programs in DRC.
Reports say the delivery of services for women has improved in those areas where rape is prevalent. Your thoughts?
There are these places called listening houses or maisons d’ecoute. I had the opportunity to visit one of them about an hour north of Goma. They are being supported by the international community: the American Red Cross. My sense is that these maisons d’ecoute have, according to the local folks there, decreased some of the stigma with regard to rape, in the sense that they have given the women a place where they can actually go and feel protected, where they can get resources and where the word is spread through the community that if this happens to you, you can actually go there and get help. On one hand [this] is important and on the other hand contributes to the epistemological problem. Are we seeing higher reports of rape because we are seeing more infrastructure for safe reporting or is rape happening more?empty body