DR Congo

DR Congo: Armed men are raping women, looting homes, says NGO

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Katy Gabel, Nairobi - Armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are looting homes, raping women and forcing civilians to carry water for them, says Rebecca Wynn of the Oxfam agency. AllAfrica's Katy Gabel interviewed her on the phone from Nairobi.

What is the situation on the ground right now?

I'm in Goma at the moment. We've seen a lot of people moved from their homes, and many of them are trying to get to the safest places they can be. For example [many are headed to] Kibati [refugee] camp, and others are sheltering in schools and churches. It's a treacherous and quite difficult situation at the moment. 250,000 people have been displaced since the end of August [2008]. That number is added to the one million people who are now homeless in the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo.

How are aid agencies working now that the ceasefire has been broken?

It's challenging to reach people because a lot of people aren't in camps. Many people are sort of hiding in the bush or forest and then coming to camps. They're used to insecurity. This has been a 10-year conflict, and people are hiding away for their own protection. But they're also making it much harder for aid agencies to reach them.

What are health conditions like in the camps?

It's easy for diseases like cholera to spread in those conditions. What Oxfam specializes in is water and sanitation. That's what we do in emergencies... because water and sanitation are essential to stopping the spread of diseases. It's our first priority. We're working at Kibati camp to improve the water and sanitation there, and working with other camps in Goma to do that.

What can the international community do to help?

It's a volatile situation. There was a ceasefire, but that ceasefire has crumbled. When the fighting starts up again, it is difficult for aid agencies to reach people. We're trying to be flexible, but this is why, in addition to being an aid agency, Oxfam is doing a lot of advocacy around this crisis as well.

We're calling for a ceasefire. We're saying there needs to be a political settlement, and we're calling on the United Nations envoy [former Nigerian President Olusegun] Obasanjo to find a more sustainable solution to this crisis.

Alongside that, we're advocating for more peacekeeping troops to help protect civilians in the Congo. We're lobbying for all of this to happen. For now, a ceasefire is absolutely critical. It will lead the way for peace talks and a negotiated settlement.

We put out a press release yesterday based on three protection assessments that we carried out in the Kivus. We looked at an area called Kanyabayonga, about 30 kilometers north of the worst-hit conflict areas; we also looked at the Kibati area and the south, near Sake and Minova. We found an increase in forced labor and harassment. These things are going on, and sadly have been going on for a long time.

Have you found evidence of human rights abuses?

...We found that in Kanyabayonga there were 66 [reported] cases of rape just last week... and looting by armed parties to the conflict has been extreme. Men are entering people's homes at gunpoint and walking away with jerrycans of water. They're really taking every last shred of what civilians have available to survive. So the situation is quite dire.

People told us that they felt like the living dead - [they felt] that their lives didn't have any value. That's why we're saying that the international community must prove to them that that's not true by getting their act together and pushing for more peacekeeping troops. Just yesterday Alain LeRoy, who's the head of the UN peacekeeping forces, requested 3,000 more troops, but that decision is not going to be made until 26 November, when the UN Security Council meets again.

That's quite concerning when there are so many civilians in desperate need and who are at risk of rape and harassment. For example, there have been cases of armed men forcing people to carry water for them at gunpoint. We want that to be addressed by more peacekeepers, who can protect civilians. All parties to the conflict are involved.

What resources are available to rape and abuse victims?

There are anti-retrovirals available to people [who] have been raped, and there are health and hygiene committees working within the camps. We're trying to get the message out that anti-retrovirals are available in local health clinics, but most people don't know that they can get treatment. We need to make sure that people know that they're around.