2 August 2012

Congo-Kinshasa: Fear From All Sides in the Eastern DRC

Photo: Amnesty International/UNHCR/ P. Taggart
Fleeing conflict (file photo): Since April, the deterioration of the security situation due to fighting between the national army and rebels has led to the displacement of thousands.

Goma — Caught in the crossfire between M-23 rebels and the Congolese army, people in the eastern DRC territory of Rutshuru live in constant fear. Violent clashes continue to erupt. And the ensuing looting, rape and blocks to aid add another layer of tragedy to daily life.

Jeannette's barely audible voice shakes at mention of her child. She looks blankly ahead into what one imagines is the memory of the baby she was carrying on her back. The stray bullet just scratched Jeanette's neck, but it struck the infant dead.

The 28-year-old woman struggles to find words to express the horror of the moment and the overwhelming sadness she has been feeling ever since. "I don't how to live with this," she says.

"Without firing a single shot"?

The Rumangabo village, in the Rutshuru territory north of Goma, was the scene of particularly violent clashes between the M-23 rebels and the Congolese armed forces (FARDC).

Seized on several occasions by M-23 troops and then recaptured by the FARDC, the Rumangabo village ultimately fell into hands of rebels on 26 July. In their advance, the rebels also seized the city of Rugari, 30 kilometres away from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Since May, the M-23 rebels, whom a United Nations report says are backed by neighbouring Rwanda, have been fighting the FARDC in the Rutshuru region.

The rebels have now openly declared their intention to capture the region's main city. However, they insist it will be done "without firing a single shot", namely by besieging the city and mentally wearing down the Congolese soldiers.

Although not impossible, the scenario is unlikely. Regardless, it worries the people, who have been paying the price of the war for months.

Victims of war

There are no exact figures for the number of casualties in Rumangabo, though nine people have reportedly been killed and a dozen taken to the Rutshuru hospital with injuries, according to village residents. According to Doctors without Borders (MSF), since last week, the NGO has attended to at least 70 injured patients from various villages in the region.

"The first injured victims started arriving in numbers on Wednesday morning around 6:30 am," stated a press release by head of the MSF mission in North Kivu Patrick Wieland.

"More than 90 percent of the victims we attended to at the Rutshuru hospital were civilians, mostly women and children. The human cost - especially in terms of civilian lives - in this conflict is very high. The doctors practically had to work around the clock in order to provide medical care to the injured victims ," said Wieland.

Looting, rape, hunger

The fighting aside, daily life has become almost unbearable for people in this region.

According to residents in central Rutshuru, the soldiers get drunk and break into their homes to loot and rape their women.

Numerous families also host those who have been displaced by the conflict, and their resources are dwindling.

"We are suffering. We do not have any food so we struggle to feed ourselves," says Alphonse, who came to central Rutshuru fleeing the conflict in his Jomba village.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), no food aid has so far been delivered to populations in territories that are under the control of M-23 rebels because of the instability in the region.

Two sides, same hazards

People are also concerned about renewed bombardments by the FARDC and UN forces, which each time damage their homes and cause numerous casualties.

"My house was destroyed and my children injured," recalls Stanislas, a 62-year-old farmer. "One of my sons was recruited by the M-23 to carry their weapons, and I don't know if I will see him again," he adds.

Very few people dare to share their views on either of the warring parties. As far as they are concerned, rebels and government forces represent the same hazards. The semblance of stability of recent years in the DRC seems to be a distant memory.

"We wonder when we are going to see an end to this," says Faustin, a shopkeeper in Rutshuru.

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