Protect displaced, HRW tells DRC
Kinshasa - Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday urged the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the UN mission there to step up protection for almost two million people displaced by conflict.
"The internally displaced are among the most vulnerable people in the region, and they desperately need greater protection and assistance," Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher at HRW said, presenting an 88-page report based on interviews with 146 displaced people.
The New York-based non-governmental organisation also talked to government officials, aid workers and journalists, on Tuesday before releasing its report called "Always on the Run: The Vicious Cycle of Displacement in Eastern DRC," which covers the period from late 2008 to mid-2010.
According to HRW, the number of displaced people reached about 1.8 million last April, with 1.4 million of those in the Nord Kivu and Sud Kivu provinces where many armed groups are active, including Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
HRW estimates that "at least 1.2 million people were forced to flee their homes during three successive military operations that began in January 2009," when the Congolese army (FARDC) attacked the FDLR with support from the UN mission in the country, now called Monusco, which includes 18 000 troops.
Displaced people have been victims of attacks by almost all the warring factions, including the army, according to HRW, which said that many have been forced to move two or three times, sometimes more.
"Combatants have forced civilians from their homes and lands, looted their properties, and punished them for suspected collaboration with enemy groups. These internally displaced people (IDPs) have fled killings, rape, burning, pillaging and forced labour," the researchers said.
Abandoning everything, "large numbers of civilians first seek refuge in the forest near their villages in the hope of staying close to their fields and property.
"Many face further abuses there, including attacks by armed groups, rape and robbery, or are forced by the lack of shelter and hunger to seek refuge and help elsewhere," the report said.
"Although many say they prefer to survive by cultivating land, their limited or non-existent access to fields means that many rely on humanitarian agencies. But for logistical or security reasons, these agencies are often unable to reach them in the places where they have taken refuge."
Parents desperate to feed their children told HRW that the absence of aid meant they had "no choice but to risk life and limb and return to places of grave danger".
The report accused the authorities of urging displaced people to return home before it was safe and HRW urged the Kinshasa government and Monusco to ensure that people could live in security if they regained their land.
HRW documented a case in September 2009 when authorities pressured 60 000 people in camps around Goma, Nord Kivu's chief town, to return home. "Police and bandits looted the camps as they were closing, attacking those who were slow to pack up and leave (...)
"Neither the government nor UN agencies adequately monitored what happened to those 60 000 people."
Simpson stressed that "UN agencies and donors need to provide sufficient resources for emergency humanitarian assistance. The displaced should be encouraged to return home only if it is safe and under voluntary conditions".