DR Congo

Aid agencies say DR Congo fighting has split families

By Derek Kilner

Aid agencies say recent fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to the widespread separation of family members. More than 250,000 people are believed to have been displaced since fighting resumed between rebels and government forces in August. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.

Humanitarian organizations, including Save the Children and Oxfam, say more than half the civilians displaced by recent fighting in eastern Congo may have lost contact with family members.

Save the Children emergency officer George Graham spoke to VOA from Goma, the capital of North Kivu province in Eastern DRC.

"The survey was conducted by four British aid agencies who went into the camps around Goma. We interviewed almost 300 people and found that of those people, two thirds had lost a family member, whether that be a parent or a husband or a wife, or indeed a child," said Graham. "About a quarter of the people we surveyed had lost children."

With its limited sample size, the survey does not provide conclusive figures, but the organization says it provides an indication of the scale of the problem.

"The villages have been attacked completely by surprise. Families have found themselves in the middle of the night having to gather their possessions, gather all their family members together and flee to safety," he added. "And in the chaos of this situation, we are finding numerous reports of families ending up separated."

The aid agency CARE has also said that up to one-fifth of displaced families around Goma are headed by single mothers.

Sporadic fighting has plagued eastern Congo since the official end of the country's civil war in 2003, but the violence has intensified since late August. The heaviest clashes have pitted the rebel National Congress for Defense of the People, led by Laurent Nkunda, against government forces. But several other armed groups have been involved in attacks.

The U.N. Security Council last week approved the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops for the peacekeeping mission in the Congo, known by the French acronym, MONUC. With 17,000 troops it is the world's largest peacekeeping mission, but its forces are spread across a large area and have had difficulty preventing clashes.

Government troops stopped a U.N. convoy Sunday near the Kibati refugee camp outside Goma and removed 23 people being transported by the United Nations. The men were taken despite the apparent objection of the peacekeepers. U.N. officials say they included members of the Mai Mai militia, who have traditionally been allied with the government, but government soldiers accused the men of being rebels.

After the incident, civilians threw stones at the U.N. convoy, the latest manifestation of local frustration with the operation. But for the most part, a tentative ceasefire has been holding in the region.

Last week, Nkunda's forces pulled back from front lines near the town of Kanyabayonga, north of Goma. MONUC military spokesman Jean-Paul Dietrich says that so far the peacekeepers have encountered few problems.

"The situation has been calm for about a week in this region. There was some attempt of incursion on Thursday, when a group of about 70 Mai Mai tried to enter Rwindi, which was left by CNDP on Tuesday evening," said Dietrich. "But we finally convinced them not to continue towards Kiwanja, I think this was their plan, and they returned from where they came."

Nkunda says he is protecting the region's ethnic Tutsi community from Rwandan Hutu militia operating in the area, and has demanded direct negotiations with the Congolese government. The government maintains negotiations must involve all of the numerous armed groups operating in the country's east.