DR Congo

Congo crisis: Aid prepared as tensions continue

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The situation remains tense in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as Catholic Relief Services and its local Caritas partners have targeted areas for aid distribution to the growing number of families displaced by fighting between rebel and government troops.

CRS has committed $500,000 to the effort.

Congo's bishops have denounced the violence, saying that widespread massacres, targeted killings of the young and systematic rapes are taking place "under the impassive eyes of those who have received a mandate to keep the peace and protect the population."

The fighting, which has displaced 250,000 people since August-100,000 of those in the past few weeks-is between the rebel group led by Laurent Nkunda and the Congolese army. Nkunda claims to be protecting the minority Tutsi population in the area.

A United Nations peacekeeping force of 17,000 is in the country, but has been ineffective in stopping the advance of Nkunda and the undisciplined retreat of Congolese forces, as well as other bands of fighters and bandits who have terrorized the population. The United Nations has authorized the deployment of another 3,000 troops.

The tense security situation has made delivering humanitarian assistance difficult, but CRS has beefed up its presence in the area with additional staff in Goma, capital of the province of North Kivu. Though reports are that Goma remains calm, the opposing forces are in a tense standoff less than 10 miles north of that city.

Working with local Caritas partners, and coordinating with other relief agencies, CRS plans to start distributing kits to thousands of displaced families in an area near the Uganda border. The kits include plastic sheeting, blankets, water containers, soap, cooking pots and utensils-all items needed to survive in these harsh conditions. CRS also plans to deliver basic water and sanitation services to other areas with large displaced populations.

International mediators have secured pledges from Nkunda to withdraw some of his forces to allow humanitarian relief to reach more of those displaced. Now, because of the violence, most of the displaced are not getting any aid. And no one knows when fighting might erupt again.

In recent months, CRS, working with its Caritas partners, has stepped up its efforts in eastern Congo to deal with the crisis following the failure of a January 2008 accord that was supposed to bring peace to this strife-torn region.

Much of the humanitarian work has focused on meeting basic needs-food, shelter, water and sanitation-while trying to respond to the increase in sexual violence and issues associated with mining of valuable minerals in eastern Congo. Those efforts will continue as CRS and partners expand our commitment to handle this emergency situation.

Michael Hill is CRS' communications officer for sub-Saharan Africa. He is based at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore.