Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Attention has been focused in recent weeks on the power struggle between government troops and M23 rebel forces in Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province and the massive population displacement and suffering that followed. But terrible things have also been happening in neighbouring South Kivu province and the protection needs there are great.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 47,000 internally displaced people have arrived in and around the towns of Minova, in South Kivu's Kalehe territory, and Bweremana on the South Kivu-North Kivu border, in the past two weeks. UNHCR and its partners have received reports of serious protection incidents in the region, including rape.
Government troops, M23 rebels and other armed groups have all been accused of the rights abuses in South Kivu, including the rebel FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and Mai Mai militia groups.
UNHCR believes the abuses are unacceptable and again appeals to all armed groups involved in the conflict to refrain from threatening and abusing the civilian population and to take measures to prevent rights violations and to investigate cases when they occur and punish those found guilty.
"We particularly condemn those who exploit the fluid situation in eastern Congo to commit grave human rights violations, especially rape. We are, however, encouraged by the fact that the government has arrested seven soldiers on charges of looting," a UNHCR spokesman said.
An inter-agency mission, including UNHCR, visited the Minova area late last week and found disturbing evidence of human rights abuses linked to the latest conflict, including rape, looting and the presence of armed men in spontaneous IDP (internally displaced people) sites as well as schools.
The team heard that at least 72 women had been raped in or around Minova. All had received medical treatment, while 52 of the victims were given post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits. These kits are given to rape victims to minimize the risk of HIV/AIDS infection, but they must be administered within 72 hours of the victim being raped.
The incidents in Minova come on top of at least 76 rape cases that UNHCR's local partners have reported from North Kivu during the fighting in November. Another 40 cases have been reported in the Minova area in November by an NGO partner of UNHCR that provides psychosocial assistance. A psychologist and four psycho-social assistants have visited Minova in recent days to assist SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) victims, while six safe houses have been set up to provide extra support.
The inter-agency mission also heard of several cases of looting, including of aid items handed out to internally displaced people in Minova.
Although the newly arrived IDPs have put more strain on scarce resources, including water and firewood, in the areas where they have found shelter, the inter-agency team found that so far there was no sign of major tension between host communities and IDPs. Prices of food had risen. The insecurity had also prevented locals from accessing fields to tend their crops, which affected their income-generating ability.
The inter-agency mission also identified 39 cases of children separated from their parents, but all were living with family members. There were also 22 unaccompanied minors (nine girls and 13 boys, of whom eight have been reunited with their families). One four year-old child was found playing with a grenade near Nyamassassa. The mission also heard of child recruitment in the Kalehe territory's Hauts Plateaux region.
In North Kivu, meanwhile, the situation continues to stabilize as government troops, police and officials return to reassert their authority in Goma, Sake and other towns. But the M23, after withdrawing from Goma, remain nearby.
UNHCR has made recommendations to the government and UN peace-keepers on improving security for people living in camps, including Mugunga III which was attacked and looted last weekend. Steps are under way to ensure the security of all IDPs, including in the 31 official IDP camps across North Kivu. "We and our partners have access to only 15 camps at the moment. We also want to ensure the security situation is good in return areas before assisting people to return home," the spokesman said.
At the end of October, OCHA reported that there were some 841,000 IDPs in North Kivu. An estimated 129,000 people were displaced as a result of the recent instability. An estimated 105,000 IDPs live in the 31 camps under the responsibility of the Camp Coordination and Camp Management working group, including 30,000 in Mugunga III. The rest live in spontaneous sites or with host communities. In South Kivu, according to OCHA, some 878,000 people were displaced by the end of October 2012. Most are living in host communities.