Kinshasa — The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) estimates that 140,000 people have been forced to flee battles taking place in and around the eastern city of Goma since November 15. The crisis has been escalating: Rebel group M23 took control of Goma on 20 November, and surrounding communities are finding themselves caught between government and armed forces. The upsurge in fighting has added to what OCHA describes as the country's already monumental humanitarian needs. In the past few days, donors have stepped up their response to aid agencies' appeal for the DRC 2012 humanitarian action plan. IRIN spoke to Barbara Shenstone, head of OCHA's DRC office, about the needs and challenges ahead.
The DRC appeal has been underfunded. Would you describe this as a neglected crisis?
Today we are about 60 percent funded in the appeal. The humanitarian community asked for US$791 million this year. This is a huge country - an ocean of need - and it is seen somewhat as a lost or forgotten emergency. It doesn't have the same weight as other violent conflagrations, such as Syria or Afghanistan, or the same strategic interest for many countries.
That being said, the needs are there. This country has some of the worst indicators in terms of child welfare, malnutrition, conflict-related violence and food security. It has terrible diseases: Ebola, cholera, etc.
Right now, in the east, this isn't a typical humanitarian crisis where something terrible happens like an earthquake or a war [that quickly] is over and you rebuild. This is a chronic crisis. We have a flare-up of the crisis around Goma, with the movements of the rebel group the M23 and their conflict with the Congolese army, and all the other armed groups are moving around and taking advantage. It's about politics, control of natural resources, and the place or influence that certain minority groups should have in the state. It's a complex emergency, and that's hard to make a case for in a world of sound bites. This place is far away and difficult to talk about, but it's very real.
How has the situation worsened since the attack on Goma?
Since the attack on Goma, around 140,000 people have suddenly been displaced. Many of them had already fled a crisis previously and were in some makeshift arrangement with host families or in a makeshift camp. These communities are in distress, trying to find a place where they might be moderately safe.
North Kivu already had 800,000 people displaced. These 140,000 include some of those 800,000 and new populations. Their living conditions will deteriorate very quickly if they don't have latrines, water, food and emergency health care.
The closure of the Goma airport is an immediate challenge. What would it take to open it again?
Most of the aid in terms of food and medical supplies actually comes by road, via Rwanda, and that border is still open. But the airport is important for some vital medical supplies and, of course, for commercial flights too. For a city of one million people not to have an airport in this day and age is pretty serious.
The M23 are in position around the airport, and the MONUSCO [the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC] troops are in the airport. OCHA has had formal discussions with the M23 to ask them to let the airport open. M23 has expressed its willingness to open it, and is discussing modalities with the UN [forces]. I think it's been slightly complicated by the arrangement that was reached in Kampala, where the possibility of a small international force being stationed there was proposed. That seems to have stalled the opening. We ask all the parties to try to open the airport as soon as possible.
What has it been like to deal with M23?
We have to deal with the M23. We asked them to let NGOs have access to populations in distress, not to harass humanitarian workers or the population, and to let people move towards aid and safety when they need to.
M23 has been quite straightforward in talking to us. That doesn't mean any armed group in this part of the world are angels or fully in control of itself. There are particular concerns when an area changes hands and there is void of authority. Those are very high-risk times, when there is a high risk of people settling scores and targeting minorities.
Aid workers came under attack at several locations after the fall of Goma, when protests against MONUSCO took place. Are they still being targeted?
There was some violence in Kisangani - and there was complex violence in Bunia - related to disappointment and fury over the fall of Goma. International staff were identified and chased out of their houses. Private houses were looted and damaged, and cars were wrecked. In Bunia, it seems this may have been related to other local political events. In other places, violence against expatriates seems to have been quite limited.
But humanitarians in eastern Congo are often in danger. In North Kivu in the last six months, there have been 162 incidents recorded where NGOs were attacked on the road or had their goods stolen.
Has there been an upsurge of this in the last two weeks?
No. The real immediate danger NGOs face now is being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time - the same danger the population faces.
The UN system is pursuing a threefold strategy in North Kivu that includes support for internally displaced persons to go home voluntarily. Will the UN also seek to boost development aid to help these people become self sufficient?
The strategy now is to reorient money that's in the system. People are unlikely to go back to Kayarucinya, for instance, so that funding can be moved to where the needs are. That's OK for the short term, but in the medium and long term there is definitely concern. There has been damage to schools and clinics; there are people who have lost everything they own or have had crops stolen. Projects that are underway will likely use up their resources more quickly than anticipated. There have been discussions with donors, and some have already been very generous. I believe the United Kingdom is going to provide extra aid, and possibly the Americans, the Dutch and the EU.
It must be difficult to carry on development programmes right now.
At the moment it's impossible to work on a lot of the development programmes. You can't build roads in Masisi or Rutshuru now. You can't get the materials in, and you can't go there as it wouldn't be safe.
A few years ago after the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda had taken control of much of Rutshuru territory, he ordered displaced people to go home. Do you see M23 doing the same thing?
It's true that the M23 generally doesn't think that camps are a good idea. But as the humanitarian community, we would discourage them from any attempt to forcibly move people. It's not right. You could be forcing people into danger - many of the displaced have fled violence by other armed groups and inter-ethnic violence.
How do you see the prospects for peace in these peoples' home areas over the next few months?
The situation could be very volatile. If the M23 withdraws to a certain area, they will still control that area and will still have alliances. Other groups may see that making a rebellion pays off. It very much depends on whatever agreement is reached. There is a possibility of heightened tensions between communities.
This country has such deep and intractable problems that, to bring hope, those problems have to be addressed. Otherwise agreements will be superficial and the situation will remain volatile.
Does that mean there has to be an inclusive dialogue with all the communities and possibly the other armed actors across North Kivu?
It's not my place to speculate about what the political solutions are. But clearly there are a lot of interests and a lot of weapons, and short-term truces are not going to fix this. Truces are welcome, but to bring a peace to eastern Congo that allows people to have hopes and make plans we need something much more profound.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.