NAIROBI, 3 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - An enormous humanitarian crisis is emerging in the Democratic Republic of Congo?s Katanga Province, with tens of thousands of people being displaced, but so far the government and the international community are doing little.
"Katanga is not on the political map, which is why such a massive humanitarian crisis can go ignored," said Jason Stearns, the International Crisis Group's senior analyst on Central Africa, who is working on a report on Katanga to be released in early 2006.
"The situation is as bad as Ituri and the Kivus and has the potential of spinning out of control," Stearns said, referring to the provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Ituri District in the northeast.
Katanga is in the southeast of the DRC, bordering Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika, as well as bordering Zambia and Angola.
"The number of displaced in central and northern Katanga now exceeds 100,000," said Anne Edgerton, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the town of Kalemie on Lake Tanganyika. ?We know of at least 39,000 people who were recently displaced -- they do not include 72,000 displaced earlier in 2005."
Edgerton said there might be tens of thousands more people displaced in the north and centre of Katanga Province - people whom aid agencies are unable to reach because of conflict.
In mid-November, the army in the DRC quietly announced the start of a 45-day military operation in Katanga to disarm Mayi-Mayi militias there, but said it would not comment further until the operation was over.
Battles have been reported between Mayi-Mayi militia groups and soldiers from the army?s 6th military region, mostly in central Katanga in a triangular area of 200 sq km between the towns of Manono towards the north of the province; Mitwaba south of it; and Pweto, to the east on the border with northern Zambia.
Several sources said fighting is also taking place farther west in the Upemba National Park, where Mayi-Mayi militia groups are attacking villages along the shores of Lake Upemba. There are reports of fighting farther north in Katanga as well.
All the reports are sketchy, however, and in most cases aid workers cannot access areas affected by conflict.
The humanitarian crisisThose aid organisations that are able to work near the conflict zone, like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), say the Congolese army has been stopping them from entering the conflict zone itself.
"We are asking for access so that we can assess the situation," Laurence Sally, the coordinator of MSF?s emergency team in the DRC, told IRIN from Kinshasa in early December.
MSF and some other NGOs do have access to the town of Pweto on Lake Mweru bordering Zambia, as well as 60 km west to areas in and around the village of Dubie.
By the end of December, between 300 and 1,000 people were arriving in Dubie every day, said Severine Eguiluz, the head of MSF?s mission in Katanga. The army had also allowed MSF access to a village, Kato, about 40 km northwest of Dubie.
"But there were no people there. The villages were destroyed. There was nothing for us to do, and the army blocked us from going further, saying it was not safe," she said.
OCHA?s Edgerton said many of the displaced people recently interviewed upon their arrival in Dubie said they had fled their villages more than two months ago and had been living in the bush.
"Their most immediate need is clothing," she said. "Many arrived with clothes rotting off their bodies."
Most of the assistance they have been receiving has come from locals, who themselves live on less than a US $1 a day, she said. "They are already overburdened, hosting almost 16,000 displaced people who arrived in the area in August."
The aid organisations in Dubie and Pweto are gearing up to provide assistance to 13,000 newly displaced people.
Although around 110 metric tonnes of food aid is on its way, all but 30 tonnes of it have been delayed because of transport problems, Edgerton said. "The food was brought from Durban [in South Africa] through Zambia to Lubumbashi, but it is now being trucked back through Zambia to Pweto because rains have made the 400 km road [from Lubumbashi] to Dubie impassable."
"With the vast distances and lack of infrastructure, this is the most expensive place in the world for delivering humanitarian assistance," she said.
UN and NGO officials interviewed for this article did not claim to have a complete picture of the conflict in Katanga, but said it appeared that at least a dozen Mayi-Mayi groups had formed an alliance under a leader named Kyungu Mutanga, who goes by the alias Gedeon.
According to Stearns and other sources, the aim of the army's campaign in Katanga appeared to be to capture or kill Gedeon. As many as 5,000 to 6,000 troops of the DRC's 6th military region were taking part in the campaign, they said.
So far, however, they do not appear to have had much success in defeating the Mayi-Mayi militias. Stearns said the army's main offensive was bungled, and that most of Gedeon's Mayi-Mayi followers escaped into Upemba National Park.
A UN official said the Congolese army had a different story, claiming to have liberated thousands of civilians from Mayi-Mayi occupation.
"The army told us most of the Mayi-Mayi's bases have been wiped out, but it is not giving us more information, such as the number of militiamen it has killed or captured," the UN source said.
He said it is more likely that the army is chasing Mayi-Mayi groups from one area to another, and that the Mayi-Mayi are turning on the civilian population in the process.
According to Edgerton, most of the displaced people interviewed by OCHA said they were supportive of the army's campaign to wipe out the Mayi-Mayi. She remained sceptical, however, that the army would succeed. "This is an army that has no food, no fuel and bullets," she said.
Another UN source said: "We are getting independent reports that the army is committing human rights violations." The OCHA-led interagency mission to the Dubie area from 15 to 17 December 2005 documented at least one case of rape by a soldier.
According to Stearns, the Congolese army?s November campaign had a difficult start. "The government said it sent $250,000 in cash to Katanga's 6th military region for fuel, food and logistical support, but the money never arrived."
A UN official told a different version of events: "The money was never sent."
More than four decades ago, from 1960 to 1964, Katanga was the scene of the UN?s first peacekeeping mission in Africa, with almost 20,000 troops deployed there.
The UN?s current mission to the DRC began in 1999. Known as MONUC, the mission includes 15,000 peacekeepers, but no more than 300 are in Katanga, and most of them are protecting UN assets in Kalemie and in the provincial capital, Lubumbashi.
While MONUC is providing air transport and other logistical support to the Congolese army in Ituri and the two Kivus to help it disarm foreign rebels and local militias, MONUC is not providing support to the army in Katanga.
Only a handful of MONUC military observers are in towns around the conflict area, and they are unable to observe the fighting, according to a MONUC officer who asked not to be identified. ?We do not have [armed] escorts in Katanga, so we are not really on the ground," he said.
One reason that MONUC is not better represented in Katanga is that it is apparently overstretched in the DRC, partly because the UN Security Council turned down requests by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to increase MONUC?s troop strength.
Local authorities make frequent pleas to MONUC to send troops, but observers say none of the four vice-presidents in the DRC?s transitional central government has pushed for it. Nor has the DRC?s president, Joseph Kabila.
Sources also say that Katanga is rarely mentioned even during meetings of foreign diplomats in Kinshasa, including those held by the ambassadors of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Belgium and South Africa.
A widely held view is that the international community does not want to be seen to be interfering in Katanga, because Katanga is President Kabila's backyard.
Who are the Katangan Mayi-Mayi?
Northern Katanga is the birthplace of President Kabila's father, former President Laurent Kabila, who overthrew President Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
When Rwanda invaded the Kivu provinces along its border with the DRC in 1998, Laurent Kabila sought to stem the advance of Rwandan troops farther south into Katanga by recruiting local farmers from his Lubakat ethnic group into civil defence forces.
These forces had not previously existed in Katanga as such. They appeared to model themselves on armed groups that more commonly existed in the Kivus, called the Mayi-Mayi, whose members used modern weapons but claimed to be protected by magic.
After Rwanda withdrew from Katanga, these newly armed militias began fighting rather than go back to their farms. "Nobody said to them, 'Thanks for saving the country, now here is your disarmament and reintegration package,?" said Edgerton.
In 2002, after Laurent Kabila was assassinated, Joseph Kabila reached a comprehensive peace agreement with most armed groups in the country, but not the Katangan Mayi-Mayi. "The Katanga Mayi-Mayi were left out because Kabila thought they would be easier to control that way," said Stearns.
It soon became apparent that they were not.
In November 2002, fighting broke out between Kabila's army and Mayi-Mayi at Ankoro, the town in northern Katanga where Laurent Kabila was born. At least 100 civilians were reported killed and 75,000 civilians displaced.
Fighting has continued ever since.
For Stearns, "The various Mayi-Mayi militias are competing for three things: the right to extort taxes from local populations; the right to control small-scale artisanal mining; and the right to poach wild animals in Upemba National Park."
"None of this is legitimate, which is also why negotiating with the Mayi-Mayi is now so difficult," he said.
In September 2004, the governor of Katanga brought leaders of the Katangan Mayi-Mayi to a roundtable in the town of Kamina. "That meeting was a resounding failure," Stearns said.
In April 2005, a Mayi-Mayi commander known as Chinja-Chinja, meaning ?slaughter-slaughter? in Swahili, came to Kinshasa to negotiate with the government but was promptly arrested on charges of war crimes. No other Mayi-Mayi leader is known to have travelled to visit the Kinshasa authorities since.
Instead, some of the Mayi-Mayi have grown more belligerent, killing, in October 2005, a priest and a teacher sent by the provincial authorities in Katanga to mediate with them.
Efforts to disarm Mayi-Mayi militiamen voluntarily have not yet worked either. In 2005, a local "bicycle-for-weapon" disarmament programme was launched with Kabila?s support. "The Mayi-Mayi started fighting over the bicycles," Stearns said.
A diplomatic source called the programme a "smokescreen to make the government appear to be doing something, when it was really doing nothing."
Stearns said some high-ranking officials in Kinshasa have had an interest in prolonging the conflict.
The diplomatic source concurred: "There are people profiting from [the mineral] coltan and ivory. They're not making a lot of money, but they are making more than they would if there was peace," he said.
Which way forward?
As Stearns sees it, the army?s November 2005 operation in Katanga may be the result of new pressures on Kabila, and with national elections due to take place in 2006, Congo?s president may want to be able to campaign for votes in his home region.
Stearns says the Congolese army would only succeed in tackling the Mayi-Mayi militias, if it deployed one of its newly integrated and better trained brigades and it received MONUC?s help on the ground.
Stearns said ICG supports the UN Secretary-General's rejected recommendation of sending in a MONUC brigade of 2,590 peacekeepers, and many NGO and UN officials concur.
A MONUC official said, "Some of the armed groups are not violent, and they would be willing to disarm if we can provide them with protection and support." UN troops could support the Congolese army to forcibly disarm those of the Mayi-Mayi who resisted.
"We would quickly create a buffer between the various Mayi-Mayi groups and the army and create conditions for relief workers to bring in aid," the MONUC official added.
However, other officials see other options.
"Everyone seems to prefer a military solution," one UN relief official in Katanga said, "but the Katanga Mayi-Mayi have been neglected and their grievances need to be acknowledged."
"There's been a lot of talk about disarming and reintegrating Mayi-Mayi fighters back into the society, but so far no one is really doing anything," the official added.
"The transitional government has the power to negotiate an end to the violence, and [diplomats in Kinshasa] have the power to pressure the transitional government to negotiate."
Stearns calls for both a "good carrot-and-stick programme" that allows the Mayi-Mayi to demobilise and integrate into the Congolese army if they want to, and "if they don?t, then the Congolese army, with UN support, needs to make a coordinated military response."
Solving the Mayi-Mayi problem in Katanga, said all of IRIN?s sources, will take tenacity, time and money.