On March 11, "such a big joyful cry went up in town that we thought the new President had arrived," one aid worker from Bunia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) told Refugees International. But the yell was because a convoy of fish had arrived from Lake Albert. The fish were a sign that the road was open for commerce, and for humanitarians that meant access to populations that had been cut off for months. "Whenever we get access, the humanitarian requirements are enormous. Decent humanitarian work is possible here. Restricted movement is a political decision." These words, spoken to RI while on mission in February in Bunia, Ituri, in northeastern Province Orientale in the DRC, now seem prophetic.
In the early morning of March 6, 2003, a struggle for control of Bunia broke out between Ugandan forces (UPDF) in the region since 1998, and the Patriotic Union for Congo (UPC), a recently-formed militia that took control of Bunia in August 2002. The UPDF expelled the UPC, and suddenly, humanitarians had access to displaced populations outside of Bunia. "This is the first time the soldiers of the UPDF are a stabilizing factor, because they are not conniving with the local ethnic militia that has gained the upper hand in the city," said Michel Kassa, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the DRC on March 10, even before the fish arrived in Bunia.
In a surprising about-face, the UPDF is helping to open roads that have been closed for years. The humanitarian community is beginning to have access to populations that have been hiding in the bush in appalling conditions these last four years. The UPDF has made yet another agreement to depart by April 24, once an Ituri Pacification Committee of local leaders has started work. The Government of Rwanda, still backing the RCD-Goma in North Kivu, claims that it will act if the UPDF does not depart. Since both foreign armies tend to carry out their arguments on Congolese soil, international diplomatic pressure must hold them to their Pretoria agreement, including full withdrawal from the Congo.
Increased humanitarian presence now will serve to convince participants in the conflict that they cannot win through intimidation of local populations, that there is a humanitarian community watching and reporting violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Now is the time for significant international pressure for humanitarian access. Funding for humanitarian assistance in the Congo has been too little, and that has left remote and dangerous Ituri in a state of neglect. International attention and presence in Ituri have been negligible for too long.
Humanitarians say that serving the populations in and around Bunia is very rewarding. The city of Bunia is host to an estimated 115,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from different areas around Province Orientale because of fighting in 2002. "They [IDPs in Bunia] have no idea what humanitarian assistance is. They've never received it. You give them a kilo of rice and they say, 'All of this just for my family?' You tell them 'yes,' and they still look at you incredulously. They hurry away, afraid you'll call them back and tell them it was a mistake. It's like manna from heaven to them," recounted an aid worker involved in the relief effort in Bunia.
An internally displaced man, head of a family of four told RI, "I want to thank you and all the international community for the assistance you have given us. We are so grateful. You have saved my son. Without the assistance you have given, he would not be able to eat." This man and his family were the recipients of one food distribution, and supplementary food for his son.
More aid agencies and personnel are required in Ituri immediately. Access improves daily. As access improves, more desperate situations come to light. On March 12, humanitarian workers were able to reach one village, to which RI was denied access by the UPC in February. "We visited [the village] yesterday to see the situation of the internally displaced. I think the UPC denied you access because they knew the destruction that they had committed. People are outside and live like animals. Everything was burned, and I mean completely."
It is premature to estimate the displaced populations and the amount of assistance they will need. But IDPs in the DRC suffer serious neglect from the international community. Last year, the UN received only 46% of the $202 million requested in its Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) for the DRC. This was an appeal for an estimated 2.1 million IDPs. This year's appeal for $268 million, that was launched in November 2002, may fare even worse; it currently has no pledges. In the meantime, the official UN estimate of IDPs in the Congo rose to 2.4 million, and now may exceed 2.7 million. Everyone in the Congo agrees, from Congolese to aid workers to UN officials, "What arrives isn't enough."
The U.S. has not responded to the situation in Ituri. As access is improved and information on the humanitarian situation emerges, a vigorous U.S. response will be imperative. Initial estimates by the very small humanitarian community in Bunia reveal a situation that looks to be far worse than anything seen in the Congo to date. The U.S. must not turn its back on the most vulnerable population in a crisis. And since it will take time and money to get any assistance to this remote area of the DRC, the U.S. needs to start organizing a response now, beginning with providing emergency funding assistance to non-governmental organizations responding to the emergency in Ituri.
Refugees International, therefore, recommends that:
- The United Nations and Security Council members pressure the governments of Uganda and Rwanda to comply with signed agreements regarding withdrawal and support of negative forces in the Congo.
- International donor governments fully fund the UN CAP for the DRC for 2003 now so that activities will not be curbed or halted.
- The U.S. Government, particularly the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, respond to the opening of access to Ituri and immediately fund projects in Province Orientale.