Agency calls for urgent international action to help civilians as military operations spread.
Atrocities are being committed against villagers in remote areas of EasternCongo, where fighting between the Congolese army and the FDLR rebel groupcontinues, said international agency Oxfam today.On a recent field visit to Lubero territory in North Kivu, where Oxfam has increased its emergency operations due to the renewed fighting, villagers reported that severalthousand houses have been deliberately burned since military operationsbegan in January. In the past week alone, at least 250 more homes were setablaze.Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whojust came back from the conflict zone, said: “There is nowhere that issafe in the area I visited. Villagers are being forced to flee, some forthe fifth or sixth time, losing family members on the way. Women are beingraped and abused. People have been looted of the few possessions theyowned, and have had their houses burned to the ground – all of this ishappening as we speak, but the world is looking away.“The stories I heard are heartbreaking. A woman told me how she witnessed abrutal gang rape of a neighbor by three armed men. She thinks the victimmust have died afterwards. She ran away with her children, but her husbandran in another direction. She does not know where he is.”At least 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes sinceJanuary. Oxfam is alarmed about the lack of protection of civilians intheir home villages, but also about their safety in the towns they fled to,where armed men are also carrying out serious abuses.There are not enough UN peacekeepers patrolling the areas affected by thenew violence, leaving civilians feeling scared and vulnerable. While thereare around 17,500 MONUC peacekeepers in the country, the force has verylittle visible presence in the areas to which people have fled.“Communities tell us that they would like to see more peacekeeperspatrolling the areas on foot, so that they feel safer”, said Stoessel.Oxfam called on MONUC to ensure that its resources are deployed in areaswhere they can best protect people at risk.Oxfam this month significantly scaled up its life-saving emergency responseby providing clean water, sanitation, and carrying out crucial hygienepromotion activities. Up to 150,000 additional people will benefit fromthis assistance.With the military operations against the FDLR now expanding to South Kivu,Oxfam is also concerned for civilians there, with initial reports ofthousands of people already fleeing in anticipation of increased violenceand attacks. Oxfam has opened a new rapid response office in Bukavu, SouthKivu, to be prepared for possible humanitarian fallout.“What we have seen in North Kivu sets a terrible precedent for what mayhappen in South Kivu”, said Stoessel. “Oxfam calls on all parties to theconflict, including the Government, to respect the life, dignity andproperty of civilians.”