Communities in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are being preyed on mercilessly by rebel groups and local militias, as well as their own government's troops and officials, in a vicious cycle of exploitation and abuse according to a new report by international agency Oxfam.
According to Oxfam, Congolese civilians are not only suffering violent abuse on a massive scale - including rape, kidnap and murder - but are also being subjected to an unprecedented level of financial exploitation, as belligerents loot and extort illegal taxes in their battle for control.
Evidence gathered recently by Oxfam in a survey of more than 1,300 people in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Province Orientale shows that government soldiers and civilian authorities, including the local police, and armed rebel groups are vying for control over local communities to extort money and goods from them. In some areas such as northern Masisi and southern Lubero, vulnerable communities have become one of the most important sources of income for armed groups.
The crisis in DRC has deteriorated rapidly since April of this year when former CNDP (Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple) soldiers defected to form a new group, the M23 (Mouvement 23). Over the past eight months eastern Congo has seen increased activity among armed groups who consistently rape, kill, kidnap, torture and abuse civilians. Many of these groups are taking advantage of power vacuums left as government troops have moved to fight M23 rebels elsewhere. The most insecure areas are those where rebel groups are fighting for control and the number of contested territories has increased significantly in 2012.
"Ruthless militias and government troops are both mercilessly exploiting local communities to help fund their war," said Oxfam's associate country director, Elodie Martel. "Preying on people has become an extractive industry in which armed groups plunder money, food and whatever other resources they can find. People are leaving their homes everyday to escape the terror of rebel rule and the relentless extortion that makes existence almost impossible as their lives and livelihoods are looted."
The aid agency said exploitation has reached appalling levels with people facing violent forced recruitment, forced labor and continuous illegal taxation. As battles rage back and forth over strategic territory and communities, people are fleeing - many to rapidly growing camps where they are forced to live in terrible conditions with very little help. Since the beginning of the year, 767,000 people in North and South Kivu have left their homes due to conflict.
In northern Masisi in North Kivu, the small market town of Kashuga was attacked 12 times between April and July 2012 by Congolese army troops, as well as the APCLS (Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain) and FDLR (Forces Démocratique de Libération du Rwanda) rebel groups. They were fighting over control of illegal tax revenues imposed on local people selling or buying goods at the weekly market.
Elsewhere in Masisi farmers said they had to pay 1,000 Congolese Francs (approximately US $1 or the equivalent to 2-3 kilograms of beans) to the local rebel group, Mayi-Mayi Nyatura, for each person wanting to access their fields to farm their crops.
In Irumu, Ituri, in Province Orientale, women market sellers said they had to give wood and straw to the militia when arriving at the market, and that every household had to give 500 Congolese Francs (US $0.5) to the militia each month. Oxfam was told that taxes are seen as a way of reducing the risk of abuse by armed groups and have become known as protection taxes labeled lala salama - Swahili for "sleep peacefully" - or remger ubuzima for "protect life".
No effective state authority
The assessment found that communities face pervasive abuse by both armed rebel groups and government forces but around two thirds of people said that, despite the abuse and the environment of impunity, they felt more secure living under FARDC control.
In the absence of an effective state authority, many people said they feel abandoned by central government and in some areas have taken justice into their own hands by forming their own armed force - adding to the plethora of armed groups in the east.
"In the face of abuse and exploitation on this scale there is no room for apathy. This is a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale and the world cannot continue to turn its back on this tragedy. Communities in eastern Congo are living on the very edge of survival with the little they have being taken to fund the war. Not only does the conflict mean that people are under constant threat of violence, but it is taking the clothes off their backs and the harvest from their fields," said Martel.
"It is reprehensible that another year goes by with people telling us they go to bed afraid of killing, lootings and abductions and that women are too afraid to go to their fields for fear of being raped. The Congolese Government, the United Nations, the international community must listen and respond to the people paying the ultimate price for the conflict."
Read the report: Commodities of War: Communities speak out on the true cost of conflict in eastern DRC
Photos: IDP camps near Goma, eastern DRC
Blog: Safe water for Congolese refugees in Rwanda
Conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo