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North Kivu: fighting blocks aid workers’ access to victims

17-09-2007 Interview

Yann Bonzon, head of the ICRC’s Goma sub-delegation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, talks about the situation in North Kivu province since fighting resumed between government forces and certain armed opposition groups.

 So North Kivu is once again the scene of violent armed clashes?  

Yes, and the resumption of fighting between the Congolese army and forces loyal to General Laurent Kunda have caused mass displacement in the regions affected.

Currently, people are trying to get out of the combat zones as fast as they can. Most of them leave everything behind. In the confusion, many families get split up. After having walked for hours or even days, these displaced persons need help quickly if they are to survive.

People are seeking refuge in towns away from the fighting, but we’re still not sure how many of them there are. The current estimate is that there are 40,000 displaced persons in the area around Goma, but this still needs to be confirmed once we know more exactly what is happening. What is certain is that the fighting is making it difficult for aid workers to move around in North Kivu, and this is restricting our ability to carry out assessments and take action.

 What is the ICRC able to do under these circumstances?  

From the start, we have been focusing on medical treatment for people injured in the fighting. In particular, we have been supplying medicines, probes and radiology equipment to Katindo military hospital in Goma, which has admitted around 100 casualties so far. An ICRC surgeon and a medical team are helping the hospital with operations.

...there is clearly a problem with regard to the protection of civilians, because a number of people not involved in the fighting have been treated for bullet wounds.

In parallel, we sent a medical/surgical kit to Masisi on 3 September. We have also been supporting health centres in and around the combat zone, such as the one at Katchinga. Here again, the aim is to help people affected by the fighting. And there is clearly a problem with regard to the protection of civilians, because a number of people not involved in the fighting have been treated for bullet wounds.

The ICRC was also able to distribute basic necessities to several hundred families, with logistics support from our colleagues in South Kivu. Working together with the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we’ve mounted an emergency aid operation for people recently displaced by the fighting. This has focused on Kalembe, a town about 50 km north-west of Goma. About 5,000 displaced persons have received various basic items. The National Society and the ICRC are also supplying drinking water to almost 10,000 people, both displaced persons and residents. But much remains to be done in this field.

 What is the ICRC doing to make arms bearers more conscious of their obligations under international humanitarian law?  

We make representations to the belligerents each time large-scale hostilities break out, reminding them that they must respect both the civilian population and objects indispensable to their survival, refrain from harming people who are hors de combat and treat in a humane manner anybody they may capture in the course of the conflict.

We are visiting locations in Goma where detainees may currently be held, and we are also trying to obtain access to anyone who may be held by the opposition groups.

In addition, we have been emphasizing the obligation to allow humanitarian organizations access to the victims of the fighting. Where we encounter problems moving around the isolated areas of the province, this is mainly due to the intensity of the fighting. When that kind of problem arises, we try to make those concerned understand the need to suspend military operations, at least while we are passing through a location or working there.