GOMA, Congo, The Dem. Rep. of (October 30, 2008) - The rule of law has all but collapsed and hundreds of thousands of lives will be at risk in the Democratic Republic of Congo without immediate help from the international community, the humanitarian agency CARE warned. Over the last several months, CARE has seen the conflict progressively deteriorate in the country's North Kivu region, displacing people and severely restricting humanitarian access. This week, the violence worsened, causing tens of thousands of people to flee towards the city of Goma on the border with Rwanda.
"We are frightened and anxious because the number of peacekeepers in the Congo - one of Africa's largest countries - is stretched thin and is inadequate," reports Maurizio Crivellaro, CARE's country director in the DRC. "The international community must immediately ensure that the UN Peacekeeping Force in Congo (MONUC) is able and properly equipped to protect civilians."
CARE believes that unless the violence in the DRC ends quickly, regional stability is at risk due to possible spill-over effect of refugees in neighboring countries, specifically Uganda and Rwanda, as well as splinter armed groups in the region that may align themselves with Congolese rebels. "We have worked with communities in these neighboring countries that have made gains in peace and stability; but the progress is fragile and would be at risk of eroding rapidly," said Steve Wallace, CARE's regional director for east and central Africa.
At least 100,000 people are estimated to be huddled on the outskirts of Goma, seeking refuge. "Pressure must be put on all parties involved in the conflict to stop the fighting, seek a peaceful resolution, and allow humanitarian agencies to reach people with life-saving food, water and shelter," Crivellaro added.
One of CARE's main worries is that parties to the conflict are said to be using people as human shields. "Absolutely under no circumstances should human beings fleeing the conflict be used as human shields by armed groups," Crivellaro said.
There are reports of combatants looting private homes and businesses in and around Goma, Crivellaro noted. He added, "The continued protection of civilians must be a priority, and CARE welcomes the efforts of MONUC and the government to implement joint police patrols."
This renewed violence in the DRC not only creates an immediate emergency humanitarian crisis but it interrupts the efforts Congolese citizens, with the help of humanitarian agencies, have been making toward normalizing their lives after decades of fighting and governmental instability.
As a result of the dramatic increase in fighting, CARE has suspended its two main programs in North Kivu. The first is the Enterprise, Environment, and Equity Program in the Virunga Mountains of the Great Lakes region, which aims to conserve the natural park while assisting local populations. A second program, focusing on health, prevention of gender-based violence and economic opportunities for about half a million people, also has been put on hold. This program, in the Rutshuru territory, in North Kivu, has centered on vulnerable and marginalized populations (widows, youth, and excluded ethnic groups such as the Batwa).
"The renewed fighting is undermining the work that CARE and others have achieved toward long-term reduction in poverty and a better future for war-weary people,"said Crivellaro. "But now that people have to flee yet another cycle of violence, everything that they've built risks being destroyed."
CARE is now working with other humanitarian agencies and the United Nations to implement emergency programs, with the goal of helping more than 375,000 internally displaced, returnees and host communities with emergency services.
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