I was supposed to be in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, with today being devoted to visiting the Kanyaruchina camp (right) for ‘internally displaced people’ (IDPs) near Goma. Instead, the trip’s been cancelled, I am still in London and Kanyaruchina has been abandoned, as some 30,000 people have fled (again).
The reason is the sudden escalation in fighting between the M23 guerrilla group and the Congolese government, with the M23 advancing to the outskirts of Goma over the weekend.
A BBC report from the deserted camp gives a taste of the human impact of the fighting. It’s great television, but it’s still the standard format – local people providing the backdrop to the white reporter or researcher. An Oxfam report out today takes a different approach, ‘bearing witness’ through focus groups and interviews to collect the views of over 1,300 people in 32 conflict-affected communities (and then working with those communities to help them address their concerns).
The ‘protection assessment’ exposed alarming levels of abuse of men, women and children by armed groups, including through forced recruitment, forced labour and continuous illegal taxation in one of the world’s most under-reported and egregious human rights situations. In areas subject to attack by armed groups, people expressed fears about killings, looting and abductions. In areas largely controlled by the state, people reported exploitation, including extortion under threat of violence, by the very state services which are supposed to protect and support them.
This chaos has exacerbated a trend in which communities themselves have increasingly become ‘commodities of war’ (the title of the report), fought over by armed groups – both state and non-state – and by authorities seeking to control lucrative opportunities to extort their money and possessions. In several areas, people have felt compelled to take security and justice into their own hands due to an abusive or absent state, adding to the growing numbers of new armed groups.
The annual report, (the sixth since 2007) “identified the following protection themes emerging over the past year:
- The civilian population has increasingly become a commodity of war, as those who are fighting vie for the right to extort money and goods from people in areas they control. Abuse of power is pervasive in state-controlled as well as rebel-controlled areas, and violent extortion and coercion are rife.
- Violent attacks on civilians continue, including inter-ethnic revenge killings.
- Coping mechanisms are strained. People report increasing vulnerability and their livelihoods seriously threatened as they lack safe access to their fields and local markets.
- Men, women, and children experience insecurity differently. For example, girls expressed fears about sexual exploitation and violence, while boys talked of the risk of violence associated with killings, arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions, forced labour, and fear of forced recruitment. For women such experiences come on top of their ongoing challenge to ascertain their rights, which is linked to cultural custom and limited access to justice;
- The security situation is worse in areas that frequently change hands between government and rebel control. Most people preferred a FARDC presence to the lack of it.
- In the absence of an effective state authority, many people reported feeling abandoned by central government. In some cases, the lack of a state presence, or abuses perpetrated by the state, prompted people to take justice into their own hands.
- Many areas that have seen increasing stability over recent years have become more insecure since early 2012 as armed groups have moved into areas vacated by the army.”
I’m always reluctant to talk about ‘innocent civilians caught between two fires’ as people usually have strong views of their own on what political change might improve their lot. But in this case, reality may well approach the journalistic cliché. It will be one of the things I try and get to the bottom of when I finally get to Eastern DRC (hopefully in January).