Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Congo-Kinshasa: DRC Civilians Face Extortion, Violence

The recent defeat of M23 rebels in eastern DRC has resulted in better security in some places, but worse in others. The development organization Oxfam has surveyed people in the region to learn how their lives are affected by armed groups.

Oxfam surveyed 1800 people in North and South Kivu Provinces two months after the victory over M23.

"What the protection survey shows is that there are patterns to violence, especially in remote communities in eastern DRC. You have the violence that's characterized by conflict - rapes, beatings, murder. But that's accompanied by displacement -- people being forced to flee their homes," said Louise Williams, spokesperson for Oxfam.

Williams said these patterns of violence give armed groups and state authorities opportunities to extort local communities.

"By demanding illegal taxes, illegal levies [and] by setting up checkpoints at which everybody who passes will have to pay a small amount of money. But every single time they pass they'll have to pay that money. There are also arbitrary fines and all sorts of other illegal practices."

The Oxfam spokesperson said communities try to avoid paying these illegal taxes and fines. Sometimes they take some of their harvest and hide in the bush. However, since many of the armed groups are from the same region they know where the hiding places are.

Williams said when the military moved against M23 it created a security vacuum in some places. As a result, other armed groups moved in once M23 left. But there are some places where the offensive improved local security, such as the Rutshuru area.

"Women told us that 'Now we can go to the market without having to pay - now we can go to the fields without having to pay.' So there are some improvements that we are documenting and that we're testifying to across the Kivus. We can also say that there were fewer abuses reported by the Congolese army in their military operations against the M23 in Rutshuru over the past month," she said.

The Congolese army had been accused of rapes, beatings and illegal levies in past operations. Oxfam says the army has demonstrated better chain of command and improved logistics in its offensive against M23. That, says Williams, has benefited civilians.

"As a result of those improvements," she said, "the army preyed on the local population less. They were exploiting the local population less. But we haven't been able to testify yet as to whether that pattern of somewhat improved military operations will be reflected in future operations as well."

Oxfam said the defeat of M23 - plus greater regional cooperation - "offer a window of opportunity for peace in eastern Congo." However, it warned, that "an end to insecurity in the region is far from an inevitable outcome." It called on the government to make concerted efforts to protect civilians from violence.

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