United Nations relief officials are calling for stepped-up humanitarian and peacekeeping measures to confront hunger and “horrific atrocities” in Katanga in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where fighting between the army and Mai Mai rebels has driven over 150,000 people from their homes in the last six months.
“The national and international response to the evolving humanitarian crisis in the Congolese province of Katanga remains woefully inadequate,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, summarizing the findings of a joint mission there last week by OCHA and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a Geneva-based global network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with human rights, development and humanitarian issues.
Apart from the people who have fled, many others remain trapped or hidden in remote and inaccessible locations, making it likely that the actual figure is much higher than 150,000, OCHA added of the situation around three Katanga sites – Mitwaba, Malemba Nkulu and Dubie. Many of these people are living in appalling conditions with alarmingly high malnutrition and mortality rates.
Apart from the severe food shortage, protection is a major concern. “In both Dubie and Mitwaba we witnessed traumatized displaced populations – victims of repeated abuse by both the Mai Mai and Congolese army (FARDC) troops,” OCHA reported.
“A number of those interviewed spoke of horrific atrocities committed by the Mai Mai. Now many of them are being victimized again, this time by the Congolese army. In Dubie a number of women in the camps complained that their husbands or sons had been taken by the FARDC since they arrived, and had not been heard of since.
“They reported numerous abuses by FARDC troops, including rape, beatings, extortion, theft of food or plastic sheeting, and being forced to walk long distances carrying supplies for the army,” it added, noting that in Mitwaba, repeated reports of abuse by army troops led the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) a few weeks ago to formally request the removal of the 63rd Brigade based there.
The OCHA/ICVA mission’s recommendations included:
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) should take the lead in organizing a rapid response to the critical food shortages, with priority given to Dubie, where the shortage is most serious.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should take the lead in ensuring deployment of appropriate UN and NGO staff to monitor and follow up on protection needs, particularly amongst the 150,000 newly displaced people, deploying experienced protection staff to both Mitwaba and Dubie as a first step.
The UN should immediately open field offices in both Mitwaba and Dubie to liaise with local authorities and the military to better protect the civilian population; provide administrative/logistical support to UN agencies and NGOs; and help mobilize necessary resources.
MONUC should immediately establish a presence in Mitwaba and Dubie. If it cannot establish a permanent presence, it should immediately initiate regular patrols to these places by helicopter.
All humanitarian actors in the DRC and donors should continue to stress to the Transitional Government that it has primary responsibility for protecting and assisting displaced people and other citizens and to remind it constantly of its responsibility to prevent human rights abuses against civilians by its own army troops.