Thousands of homes burned in new atrocities in Eastern Congo, villagers tell Oxfam

Agency calls for urgent international action to help civilians as military operations spread.

Atrocities are being committed against villagers in remote areas of Eastern
Congo, where fighting between the Congolese army and the FDLR rebel group
continues, 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 several
thousand houses have been deliberately burned since military operations
began in January. In the past week alone, at least 250 more homes were set

Marcel Stoessel, Head of Oxfam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who
just  came back from the conflict zone, said:  “There is nowhere that is
safe in the area I visited. Villagers are being forced to flee, some for
the fifth or sixth time, losing family members on the way. Women are being
raped and abused. People have been looted of the few possessions they
owned, and have had their houses burned to the ground – all of this is
happening as we speak, but the world is looking away.

“The stories I heard are heartbreaking. A woman told me how she witnessed a
brutal gang rape of a neighbor by three armed men. She thinks the victim
must have died afterwards. She ran away with her children, but her husband
ran in another direction. She does not know where he is.”

At least 250,000 people have been forced to leave their homes since
January. Oxfam is alarmed about the lack of protection of civilians in
their 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 the
new violence, leaving civilians feeling scared and vulnerable. While there
are around 17,500 MONUC peacekeepers in the country, the force has very
little visible presence in the areas to which people have fled.

“Communities tell us that they would like to see more peacekeepers
patrolling the areas on foot, so that they feel safer”, said Stoessel.
Oxfam called on MONUC to ensure that its resources are deployed in areas
where they can best protect people at risk.

Oxfam this month significantly scaled up its life-saving emergency response
by providing clean water, sanitation, and carrying out crucial hygiene
promotion activities. Up to 150,000 additional people will benefit from
this assistance.

With the military operations against the FDLR now expanding to South Kivu,
Oxfam is also concerned for civilians there, with initial reports of
thousands of people already fleeing in anticipation of increased violence
and attacks. Oxfam has opened a new rapid response office in Bukavu, South
Kivu, to be prepared for possible humanitarian fallout.

“What we have seen in North Kivu sets a terrible precedent for what may
happen in South Kivu”, said Stoessel. “Oxfam calls on all parties to the
conflict, including the Government, to respect the life, dignity and
property of civilians.”

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