NEW YORK (ABP) — Escalating violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is creating a “humanitarian crisis of catastrophic dimensions,” the head of the United Nations said Oct. 29.
U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon called attention to the flare-up, which has followed several days in which tens of thousands of internally displaced Congolese have fled fighting in the North Kivu province. Government troops have battled ethnic Tutsi rebels led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda. Nkunda's forces routed the military and advanced to within miles of the provincial capital, Goma, before declaring a cease-fire to prevent panic in that city.
Several international relief agencies have suspended operations and are evacuating staff from the area until the situation stabilizes. Fighting has made it too dangerous to distribute food, prompting concern that an estimated 1 million people who have fled their homes since the most recent round of fighting began in August might be cut off from aid.
The situation only adds to Congo's suffering. Nearly 6 million people have died in a humanitarian crisis resulting from the nation's 1998-2003 civil war, mostly from hunger or disease and half of them children age 5 or younger. The war involved a scramble for control of the nation's rich resources, which include coltan, a mineral widely used in electronic devices like laptop computers, video-game consoles and cellular telephones.
Eastern Congo is home to the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission in the world. Recently, on top of fighting rebels, the U.N. troops have had to dodge rocks thrown by citizens frustrated that 17,000 soldiers have been unable to protect a remote and far-flung area populated by 8 million people.
The U.N. estimates that as many as 200,000 Congolese have been displaced by fighting in the last two months. An estimated 2 million people in the region have fled their homes since 2007.
Many of those who have fled are reportedly malnourished and in a state of fear and panic.
“Some of the people we spoke with said they were very hungry, had not eaten any food and did not know where they were going,” said Michael Arunga, emergency-communications manager for the Christian relief organization World Vision. “Most said they had lost all their property, leaving it behind when fleeing from the fighting.”
A British aid worker in Goma described a city in a state of “chaos” in a telephone interview with the BBC.
Laura Seay, a University of Texas Ph.D. candidate who studies the Congo and has lived there, said internally displaced persons don't always get all the protections afforded to refugees who cross international borders.
Camps for internal refugees are often overcrowded, with no permanent toilets or source of clean water, Seay, a Baptist, said. Once the rainy season starts, diseases like cholera and malaria spread quickly in the camps.
“My contacts in Goma say that this year's round of fighting has been particularly bad because it's made food distribution very difficult,” Seay wrote in her blog, Texas in Africa.
“The violence coincided with the rise in food prices we're all experiencing, and rebel and army movements cut off the [U.N.] World Food Program's supply lines. Even hospitals in Goma weren't getting food rations for a few days earlier this month, nor was food going to the Mugunga camp, just outside the urban zone. If it's that bad in a city that is well-protected by peacekeepers, imagine what it's like in the countryside.”
Nkunda, the rebel leader, claims he is protecting Congo's minority Tutsis from militias of Rwandan Hutus that have been present in the country since they carried out the anti-Tutsi genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. He claims Congolese government forces are working with the militias. Suspicions are growing that Nkunda's latest offensive is supported by Rwanda.
Nkunda signed a peace agreement at the end of January, but says he won't disarm until the Rwandan Hutu remnant is removed from Congo. Congolese Pesident Joseph Kabila won't to talk to the rebel leader, whom he considers a terrorist.
On Oct. 29, World Vision called on all parties to cease hostilities and allow aid workers access to those in need.
“We will not abandon the critical needs in eastern Congo,” said Omo Olupona, World Vision's southern Africa area director. “We expect to set up an operational base inside Rwanda, from where we will continue to monitor the crisis and support those in need of help.”