Congo-Kinshasa: dramatic humanitarian impact of ongoing fighting
Yann Bonzon is in charge of ICRC operations in Goma. He explains what the ICRC is doing for the victims of the fighting and denounces the numerous incidents of abuse of the civilian population, in particular the many cases of sexual violence.
For weeks now, there have been regular outbursts of fighting between government forces and General Laurent Nkunda’s troops. Their humanitarian impact is dramatic. Not only have they forced thousands of families to flee [1 ] , they have inflicted uncalled-for suffering on the civilian population. Like other humanitarian organizations present on the ground, the ICRC has observed many cases of pillage, rape of women and very young girls, and other violations of international humanitarian law.
The ICRC constantly reminds the forces on the ground of their obligation to respect the physical integrity of the civilian population and the objects it needs to survive, including medical and religious installations.
Sexual violence is a recurrent phenomenon in this context, one to which we pay particularly close attention. We try to understand all the factors involved and to identify the perpetrators so as to make representations to weapon bearers. Our aim, obviously, is to bring the violations to a halt. It is important to remember that only the command structures concerned can take the appropriate measures.
What is the ICRC doing concretely to help the victims of sexual violence?
Besides making representations, the ICRC’s staff and that of the Red Cross of the Democratic Republic of the Congo work in the camps for displaced persons and in sensitive areas. They help women who were raped before being displaced, while on the move or in the camps. The weapon bearers we meet are regularly warned of the consequences of such acts.
Some time ago, the ICRC and its local partners developed a psychosocial support programme for the victims of sexual violence. Women who have been raped tend to be rejected by their community and to find themselves on their own, sometimes with children to support, but with no mea ns of subsistence.
The first step is to point them in the direction of competent care centres, in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, and to treat wounds to the genital organs that in some cases require extensive and repeated surgery. The ICRC provides several health facilities with PEP kits (kits of medicines to treat the victims of sexual violence) and trains their staff how to use them. The women are later helped at other centres to live with their trauma, and given advice and care.
In such a troubled context, can humanitarian organizations truly make a difference?
I am convinced that our very presence has a positive impact and prevents the worst from happening. Being on the scene of the fighting is the first step in our operation to protect civilians. It certainly curbs the level of violence and reduces the number of acts running counter to international humanitarian law.
In addition, our assistance activities for the population make a real difference, not only by preventing loss of human life but also by enabling people to meet their needs. Although there are some conflict areas to which humanitarian organizations do not have access, others have been affected by the conflict but have not seen any fighting – the people living there should not be forgotten.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We cannot charge blindly into areas where we have no security guarantees. In addition, the ICRC’s teams are very often obliged to move for their own safety’s sake, and it is impossible for us to guarantee that heinous acts will not recommence as soon as we or other organizations leave a conflict area. It is nevertheless important for us to keep open the possibility of meeting all those involved in the violence, so that we can submit our observations. This we do regularly.
We also have to coordinate our work with that of the other humanitarian practitioners on the scene. In these circumstances, everyone would like to be everywhere and in charge of everything. We have to avoid duplication and be sure that the weapon bearers understand that we are acting neutrally and impartially.
Is the peace process dead?
No. I prefer to be reasonably optimistic. There have been many discussions between the parties to the conflict and national and international representatives on a political, negotiated and peaceful settlement. As humanitarians, we of course hope that these discussions happen. The clashes in the region having been going on for too long and only prolong the suffering of an already weary population.
It is reassuring to see that the international community is becoming increasingly involved. We all remember the region’s tragic past. This being said, the ICRC leaves the political negotiations to those whose job they are and concentrates on its mandate, which is strictly humanitarian in nature: to care for the wounded and to protect and assist displaced persons.
According to OCHA, between December 2006 and 29 October 2007, 74,310 households (371,550 people) were displaced in North Kivu, including 28,626 households (143,130 people) between September 2007 and 15 October 2007. These figures have probably been further swollen by the households displaced following the recent fighting in Rutshuru.