DRC: Interview with UN humanitarian official Carolyn McAskie

Report
from IRIN
Published on 28 May 2003
KINSHASA, 28 May (IRIN) - Carolyn McAskie, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), visited eastern and northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from 22 to 26 May, touring the two zones where fighting has continued despite a comprehensive peace agreement reached between all parties to the inter-Congolese dialogue on 2 April in Sun City, South Africa, and despite numerous local ceasefire agreements. On Monday, shortly before leaving the DRC, McAskie talked to IRIN in the capital, Kinshasa, about the refusal of those who control eastern and northeastern DRC to allow humanitarian assistance to reach millions of people. For her, the displaced people of Bunia, the principal town of Ituri district, are only a sample of millions of others in Ituri who are beyond the reach of humanitarian aid.
QUESTION: What was the purpose of your visit to the DRC, and specifically to the east and northeast of the country?

ANSWER: At the UN in New York we have quite a big operation helping the humanitarian community to coordinate their assistance programmes throughout the DRC and particularly in the east where the fighting continues. It is therefore quite normal that in the course of my field visits I get to see all the OCHA teams who are under the DRC humanitarian coordinator, Herbert M'Cleod. We have teams in several towns.

You are familiar with the recent developments in Ituri. I have a team there and I came not only to support them but also to find out for myself the situation on the ground, exactly what was happening. Because of everything that has been happening with regard to the formation of a transitional government in the DRC, the world believes that peace is close. When you look at Ituri district I think everyone agrees we are not there yet. The same has to be said of the Kivus, especially South Kivu Province, which is still an area of conflict. I was there to see what was happening, to support the team and also to appeal to the sponsors, the Security Council and the international community in general for them to give more help to the humanitarian effort.

Q: In Bunia and elsewhere, the most vulnerable are women. What did you include in your appeal which could, for example, help women who have been raped, and traumatised children?

A: I wanted to touch on this question not only in relation to the Ituri region but also for South Kivu. In Bunia it must be said that the majority of the population has fled and only about 10-15 percent remain in town. Many people are now camped at the airport or around MONUC [the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC] compounds. We have there several medical teams. MSF is there, COOPI [an Italian medical NGO] is there. There are several people there to help women and children. But it is also true that the rape of women has become systematic, a weapon of war. Because of this I appeal to all Congolese to put a stop to it and to protect Congolese women. What I have noted in the east of the DRC is really shocking.

In South Kivu it has turned into a campaign against women, and I met women in the hospital at Panzi, close to Bukavu, women of 80, children, babies of two to four years who had been raped, torn, beaten deliberately and in a systematic way. It is horrible. Who are the people who believe they can enter into a conflict to take control of the population and treat the population in this way? It is done by the troops of the same people who have signed the peace accord and who are now members of the transitional government. I believe it is up to the majority of the Congolese people who want peace to insist that these people who wish to sit around the table of the transitional government stop the attacks on their own populations. It is the same people who demand protection in town, but what sort of protection do they give to the people in the east?

Q: How can OCHA help end the continuing conflict in Ituri and in the east?

A: I believe that it is for the people of the DRC to put an end to the current situation in Ituri. The international community can help the people who are suffering, but it is up to the Congolese people, the people of Ituri and of South Kivu, to decide that they are no longer at war, to reach an agreement and to work for peace in eastern Congo.

Q: Do you think a multinational force could soon be in Ituri, and if the deployment of a force with a stronger mandate is delayed, will this have an impact on the situation on the ground?

A: This aspect of UN work is not my job, but humanitarian work is very closely tied in with those responsible for peace. I was in Ituri with the UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Marie Guehenno, who was here a few days ago. He stated that other authorities within the UN secretariat were discussing the issue with member states. We will have news when there is news to tell. I do not have further details.

Q: Do you think that the savage killing of two MONUC observers at Mongbwalu in Ituri will discourage countries from contributing to an international force?

A: I hope that for the moment it won't. But people have to understand that when there are brutal and deliberate attacks on the international community, it is very difficult for members of the international community to say that their help is really appreciated. It has to be said that it is already two years since an attack on the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a purely humanitarian institution that was there to help the population. All these attacks were committed with impunity, which is to say there are already people who have escaped answering to the international community. But it is difficult for the international community to agree to send their teams no matter what.

I believe that the formation of the Ituri Pacification Commission is a very important step forward and it is already an expression of the will of the people. I am convinced that the majority of the population wants peace, is ready to work for peace and wants to end this incitement to violence and the hatred which continues to exist in Ituri. I hope that their leaders will be able to listen to them.

Q: What is OCHA able to do to help the government stabilise the humanitarian situation in the DRC?

A: OCHA is there. We are an instrument of the Secretary-General. We have been put in place to help the agencies operating there to deliver their aid. We are there to help humanitarian institutions to agree on a joint plan, a joint analysis and a joint operational plan. Among the things we can do, we can work with our colleagues in the agencies to try to get access to populations. The other big problem in Ituri is that we have access to Bunia and to two or three other places, but we have almost no access to three or four million people. Therefore, what we see in Bunia, children with amputated limbs, raped women, men with machete wounds, they are just a small percentage of people who are suffering in the district.

One of our principal objectives is to talk to the leaders of the fighters of whatever side, in a very neutral way because we are humanitarian workers, we do not take part in politics, we want to go to help the people. But the fact that this access is denied in Ituri and elsewhere means that the people who hold power in this region want to deny access, that means they are waging war on their own people.

Q: Did you talk with the leaders of the parties involved in the war, and if so, did they give you guarantees that they want peace?

A: In Ituri, I met the new Pacification Commission whose members have already given guarantees about peace. I believe that hope for the people of Ituri lies with them. As for Kivu, I met the leaders of RCD-Goma [Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-Goma rebel movement] - the president, the secretary-general and their team. I also met the governor of South Kivu. It must be said that they talk of peace, but you only have to look to see that we do not have peace in the region.

Q: How much money is needed from the international community to sustain the humanitarian effort in the east of the DRC?

A: I cannot yet say. I will make an appeal to see what we can get from donors.

[ENDS]

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