A resumption of fighting in lands in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo previously claimed by rebel Hutu militias has added more than 100,000 newly displaced people to Congo's swollen itinerant rolls in the past two months. The vast expanse of territory, coupled with precarious security arrangements and highly complex logistics of reaching those in need, have accentuated a humanitarian collapse that threatens not only the refugees, but also the local families that have generously offered their facilities to house and assist the less fortunate. In the North Kivu regional capital, Goma, UN High Commissioner for Refugees public information officer for eastern DRC, David Nthengwe, says that attacks this month in eastern towns have resulted in several deaths and in the torching of hundreds of homes.
"The Hutu rebel group has stepped up its reprisal attacks against the civilians in eastern Congo, literally attacking and burning homes. And on the 17th and 18th of April, they burned over 300 houses, and at the same time, issuing threats that they would continue to attack," he said.
Because of Congo's size and the dimensions of the displacement of more than 800,000 civilians since August of last year, camps have been filled to capacity, and local aid groups are unable to reach most of the fleeing victims.
"When we speak about 100,000 people, we are speaking about several villages that have been affected, where people have been displaced. It's impossible to have in each one of these places an NGO or a UN agency. Now, what's happening is that there is a limited presence of the NGO's. We in UNHCR are establishing a presence in Lubero. But there are a lot more villages that need the presence of international and UN agencies. But I can assure you that the insecurity, the impossible roads, the discord logistics, challenges that we face, are making it more difficult to reach even one-third of the displaced, more than 800,000 people," Nthengwe observed.
UNHCR has relied on a network of local residents for hosting the newly dislodged. But David Nthengwe notes that the system is breaking down because residents themselves are running low on food and cannot take in additional boarders.
"We are unable to get to a majority of the people who have been displaced because of insufficient security. The few that we've been able to reach have only been able to get limited assistance, relief aid that is not really going anywhere to greater than just a few thousand families. Now, we need much more than that, even if the security situation permits, we need to reach the more than 100,000 people that have been displaced, who are currently not able to be accessed. UNHCR cannot access them," he pointed out.
The shortfall has a general lawlessness among the newly displaced that Nthengwe says has compounded the security situation and further jeopardized the effectiveness of local hosting arrangements.
"The problem is if the people are left to themselves, they will for sure have no choice. And again, by speaking about this, we are exposing these people more to danger, because the only forces that are available are rebel forces, who also have an interest. So the only people they can collaborate with are the civilians in the villages. And so it becomes very difficult to talk about some more lawlessness and some more cooperation between some various armed elements and the civilians. You have a situation in which people are saying, they will be able to collaborate with an authority that is on the ground, that is there. And so it becomes very difficult," he said.
Last November, when a pro-Tutsi rebel faction, the CNDP, led by General Laurent Nkunda near Rutshuru, the displaced people of the nearby village of Kiwanja were forced to flee. Renegade General Nkunda is believed to be held by authorities in Rwanda. Nkunda is expected to face trial in Rwanda, with some of the charges against him said to point to war crimes he allegedly committed. Nkunda's arrest and a recent disarmament accord reached between his followers and the DRC armed forces have brought the hope that the dynamics of brutal civilian displacements to eliminate what had been a major source of violence and mistreatment may be altered soon. But David Nthengwe says it is not yet clear what Nkunda's departure may mean for the displaced victims of Congo's strife.
"That's another very difficult call because there has been some shift in the political landscape between the CNDP and the Congolese government, who recently signed an agreement. But the CNDP will become a part of the Congolese government, meaning that it will become part and parcel of pacifying the situation in the east. Nkunda himself is not in the east. We are only informed that he is in Rwanda. We don't know exactly where he is, whether or not he has influence on what is going on in the east, we have no idea at all," he said.
Adding to the confusion and unpredictability is the recent news that some CNDP loyalists have also resorted to violence, despite the major pact. Although he says he is hopeful that the Kinshasa-CNDP reconciliation will help reduce tensions, Nthengwe says only time will tell whether the violence in eastern DRC will finally be brought to an end.