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Internal displacement on the rise in DR Congo

More than 2.6 million people have been forced from their homes in the DRC because of intensified fighting.

Last Modified: 09 Jun 2013 12:18
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Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in minerals and many believe the battle for resources is fueling conflict [EPA]

Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo - For six days Irene Kabisha has been waiting for the man with the megaphone to call her name and provide her with food.

Together with hundreds of other displaced people from eastern DRC's Shabunda district, she's in line for her share of United Nations emergency rations: 60 kilos of flour, 18 kilos of split peas, a jar of palm oil, and a can of salt. Some of them hide from the boiling sun under brightly coloured umbrellas, tired from waiting since the early morning.

When a bridge in a neighbouring village collapsed, 26-year-old Kabisha was compelled to walk to the food distribution centre in Mulamba, a day trip through DR Congo's green hills. These hillsides, not far from the broken bridge, quickly turned into a provisional marketplace.

A day of pulling cassava plants earns Kabisha a plate of rice or beans. Occasionally she transports a large cart full of fruit and vegetables, her youngest child riding on top. 

Kabisha is one of more than 2.6 million internally displaced people(IDPs) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Civilians are increasingly caught up in the conflict in DR Congo [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre's (IDMC) latest report released in May, armed conflict in eastern Congo intensified "dramatically" during 2012, driving up the number of displaced people to record levels.

"According to authoritative sources, there were more highly violent conflicts in Africa in 2012 than at any time since 1945," IDMC reported. 

There are almost four times as many internally displaced people as there are refugees in Africa, it said. And unlike refugees, IDPs do not have special status under international law.

It is the vulnerable caught up in conflicts who suffer the most. Kyung-wha Kang, an official from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, visited DRC's troubled South Kivu region last month.

Kang went to the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu to meet women and girls who had suffered rape and other sexual violence. She was told by the medical director that about 300 rape victims are treated there each month, a number on the rise from the previous year.  

Battle for resources

Every time violence flares between opposing militias, new flows of people are forced out of their homes. This happened in January in the village of Kabagozi, when Kabisha was suddenly awakened by the crackle of gunfire.

That night, fighters executed someone in front of Kabisha's family home. The killing was apparently part of a lingering battle between rival groups.

Clashes between certain militias are often characterised as a continuation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It's more than just an ethnic conflict, observers say, as it's also a battle for natural resources including copper, cobalt and diamonds.

War has no rules. Even we, citizens of the east, often don't know who is who and who does what.

Georges Kilindila, aid worker

South Kivu, of which Shabunda is a part, is home to dozens of armed groups.

In March, the UN Security Council announced MONUSCO peace-keepers will be strengthened with an intervention force, with a mandate to implement offensive action in cooperation with the Congolese army.

Their goal: to disarm and eradicate rebel groups in South Kivu and the northern provinces - including "Le Mouvement du 23 Mars" (M23), whose former leader Bosco Ntaganda now awaits trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

But even without heavyweights such as Ntaganda, the war continues as before, says Georges Kilindila, an aid worker. Standing in the shade of a tree, he oversees the food distribution system. Every few minutes someone approaches Kilindila timidly asking, "When is it my turn?"

Many displaced people here have been waiting for rations for more than a week.

Throughout the conflict, various rebel formations have separated and fused together, leading to a flood of new child soldiers, malnutrition and epidemics. MONUSCO tries to monitor these militias, but that proves to be difficult, if not impossible.  

Complicating matters, the Congolese army (FARDC) - which the UN intervention force wants to work with - has been allegedly linked to pillaging, rape and other war crimes. M23 rebels have also been accused of similar activities. 

"War has no rules," says Kilindila with a nearly toothless grimace. "Even we, citizens of the east, often don't know who is who and who does what," he adds of the various groups of fighters. 

During a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in February, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said, "Congo must remain a top priority". Eleven African countries signed onto a plan designed to create peace and stability in the eastern Congo at the meeting, and Ban Ki-Moon called the agreement "significant".

'Stop the violence'

The African Union has also been trying to address the problem. Last December, the Kampala convention came into force, binding governments to provide legal protection for internally displaced people. But some are still sceptical that they will receive adequate protection from relentless war in the region. 

About 2.6 million Congolese are displaced [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Previously concluded peace pacts for the DRC conflict signed in 2008 and 2009 have failed to stop the violence.

"Why would it [stop] now?" says Kilindila at the food distribution centre, wiping the sweat off his forehead. "People ask themselves that all the time."

Despite the fighting, some Congolese residents remain hopeful. Drivers who arrive in the border town of Bukavu from the interior are greeted with white signs reading: "Stop the violence! Let us work for peace!"

Colourfully painted schools, churches, pharmacies and grocery stores are decorated with the words pour la paix - French for "peace".

But for refugees including Kabisha, it's difficult to maintain hope. "I have three children," she says, pointing to a toddler carrying a baby on his back.

Her oldest boy, 4, is missing, she says. In the confusion of the escape from her village, she lost him. "Maybe my neighbours found him. Or one of my cousins." 

* CORRECTION: the original version of this story identified the Raia Mutomboki group as ethnic Tutsi. However, Raia Mutomboki consists of members of the Rega ethnic background, and is enemies of both Tutsi and Hutu factions

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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