On Thursday, May 31, RI advocates Sayre Nyce and Rick Neal landed in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), at the start of a three-week mission. Hundreds of thousands have abandoned their homes in the eastern province of North Kivu since the beginning of the year, and RI will visit the sites where they have sought shelter to discover what caused them to flee and what help they have received.
Overall, the situation in the DRC has improved markedly over the past few years: conflict in many areas has died down, a new government is in place following historic national elections, and people displaced by fighting and abuse are starting to return home. North Kivu, however, remains the intractable center of conflict and humanitarian crisis in the DRC. Parts of the province are controlled by remnants of the Hutu government that carried out the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994; these remnants are now known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR. Rwanda, now governed by Tutsi, invaded North Kivu in 1996 and again in 1998, ostensibly to pursue the Hutu rebels but also profiting from the province's immense mineral wealth. The scramble for riches, fear of ethnic extermination, occupation of scarce farmland, and a weak Congolese state constitute a perfect environment for armed groups that will stop at nothing to protect themselves and their interests.
For the past few years, Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi warlord, has dominated the scene. Although nominally an officer in the Congolese national army, the FARDC, he and his troops operate independently. Resistance to integration with the new army in November 2006 led to fighting that threatened North Kivu's provincial capital, Goma. Soon afterwards, the new national government struck a deal with Nkunda that seemed to place his troops under FARDC control. However, Nkunda has used this stamp of legitimacy to launch an offensive against the FDLR. The Hutu group then began attacking civilians in reprisal, as a way to force an end to the offensive.
Civilians bear the brunt of the fighting, caught in the crossfire or deliberately targeted, accused of collaboration with one side or the other. They are also forced to support the armed groups that control their villages by providing labor, food, or sex to the troops, including those from the national army that has been sent to protect them.
In response to these attacks or out of fear of what could come, more than 100,000 people have fled from their homes since January 2007, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Humanitarian agencies have scrambled to help, using the new Rapid Response Mechanism organized by OCHA and UNICEF, but have not been able to reach everyone because of the threat of attack along certain roads. OCHA estimates that up to 300,000 could be displaced if the offensive against the FDLR continues. The role of the UN peacekeeping mission to the DRC, MONUC, in the area is unclear: it has a mandate to protect civilians and ensure access to humanitarian assistance, but also supports the FARDC, which through its strategy against the FDLR is contributing to the humanitarian crisis.
Through its visit to the region, Refugees International plans to shed light on humanitarian needs, including the need for greater protection of civilians and greater access to humanitarian assistance. However, it is clear that the explosive mix of natural resources, scarcity of farmland, and ethnic tension makes North Kivu the lynchpin in achieving peace in the DRC; at some point, these issues will have to be addressed in a way that moves beyond military force to the achievement of a comprehensive peace agreement. Only then will the people of North Kivu be able to rebuild their lives, free of fear.