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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Eastern Congo has seen a rise in violence, with at least 1,200 people killed last year.

According to a leading Catholic NGO, people in the region often need to leave their homes, their families, their valuables, and their livestock behind, “fleeing with nothing but their bare lives and the clothes they are wearing at the time of the attack.”

“These multiple displacements make people, especially children, more vulnerable to various dangers or threats, notably family separation – as fleeing from attacks occurs very often in an unorganized manner – recruitment into armed groups, neglect, violence and sexual exploitation and abuse with all its consequences of disease and illnesses, psychological trauma, stigma, hunger, etc.,” said David O’Hare of Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The charity is active in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Pope Francis is due to visit in July.

O’Hare told Crux there has been “a steep escalation of deliberate and targeted attacks by armed groups against displaced people in Ituri,” an eastern Congolese province bordering Uganda and South Sudan.

“Exposed to murder, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence, displaced communities are on the edge of survival with horrifying levels of sexual violence,” he said.

Following are excerpts of his interview.

Crux: There are continued reports about attacks in the Eastern DRC. What is the situation as of today?

O’Hare: In Ituri Province in the eastern part of the DRC, where Trócaire is operating, the security and protection situation continues to deteriorate due to the intensification of armed conflict. There are currently 1.9 million displaced people in Ituri province; at least 1,200 civilians were killed in 2021 alone due to ongoing conflict. In recent months, Trócaire and its partners have witnessed a steep escalation of deliberate and targeted attacks by armed groups against displaced people in Ituri.

These attacks have triggered new waves of mass displacement and plunged already vulnerable populations into a climate of terror. The ‘state of siege’ imposed on Ituri and North Kivu province in May 2021 is likely to remain in place throughout 2022. Under the state of siege, civilian governance structures have been suspended, and military personnel have taken over responsibilities. The declaration also allows for increased deployment of security personnel, monitoring and censorship of communications, restrictions on movement, and additional powers to conduct searches, establish checkpoints, and arrest and imprison those suspected of having intentions to harm national security. So far, the imposed measures have not yet achieved the desired results of improved security for and protection of civilians in Ituri.

What has been the impact of the conflict on ordinary people?

The frequent attacks on villages and communities result in primary and, increasingly so, in secondary displacement of people in search for more secure locations and protection. In Ituri, hundreds of thousands of people have already experienced multiple displacements. These multiple displacements make people, especially children, more vulnerable to various dangers or threats, notably family separation, as fleeing from attacks occurs very often in an unorganized manner, recruitment into armed groups, neglect, violence and sexual exploitation and abuse with all its consequences of disease and illnesses, psychological trauma, stigma, hunger, etc.

Often people need to leave their homes, their families, their valuables and their livestock behind, fleeing with nothing but their bare lives and the clothes they are wearing at the time of the attack. Some families find temporary shelter in the forest, returning to their homes by day trying to farm their lands and tend to their animals, always at risk of being attacked by different armed groups at any time. Others who managed to seek refuge in camps rely on humanitarian assistance and basic services provided by host communities, NGOs, and UN agencies. However, due to ongoing fighting and hostilities, access to people affected by the conflict is hampered as supply routes and humanitarian conveys are being targeted making the delivery of vital assistance a highly insecure and dangerous undertaking.

Security Distillery – a student-run think tank – detailed the levels of rape in the DRC in a 2021 article titled ‘Weaponization of Female Bodies: Rape as a Weapon of War in the DRC.’ Is Trócaire aware of this reality and what levels of interventions have you brought to bear on the victims?

The eastern DRC is witness to almost three decades of violence. Exposed to murder, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV), displaced communities are on the edge of survival with horrifying levels of sexual violence. According to the 2022 Humanitarian Needs Overview, between January and September 2021, 74,275 cases of GBV were reported, an increase of 73 percent compared to the same period in 2020. This increase can likely be attributed to continued violence and displacement and COVID-19-related restrictions, as well as increased public awareness and operational capacity which have allowed for increased reporting of GBV cases.

Women and girls are the most affected (94 percent of cases). A large number of cases, however, may go unreported. Social stigma and discrimination attached to sexual violence result in double victimization of those already struggling to piece their lives back together. While armed groups continue to perpetrate sexual crimes, an increasing proportion of perpetrators are found in the civilian population.

In Ituri Province, Trócaire works in partnership with a number of local organizations to deliver survivor-centered services in line with and based on international best practice focusing on survivor-centred GBV prevention and response services including: health care for GBV survivors, including medical care, dedicated and specialized psychosocial support, legal and judicial support, GBV case management, spaces for the use of women and girls, referral system with community structures including gender-balanced community protection committees trained in survivor centered psychosocial first aid and referral, dignity kits for women and girls, women’s empowerment and transformation of social norms and economic empowerment and livelihoods.

Why do people use rape as a weapon of war?

Rape has been used as a weapon of war as long as there have been wars in the history of mankind. On June 19, 2008, the UN Security Council has voted unanimously for a resolution (UNSCR 1820) describing rape as a tactic of war and a threat to international security. In the resolution, the Security Council noted that “women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” Rape is known to cause serious physical and mental damage for both men and women who are victims of sexual abuse. The damage is severe: Physically and psychologically, economically and socially with a stigma that may differ from culture to culture.

Warring groups use rape as a weapon because it destroys communities totally, according to a former commander of UN peacekeeping forces in the eastern DRC stating that it has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in armed conflict. Rape is always torture, inhuman, degrading, and a punishment. Those who commit rape during conflict settings often go unpunished because women fear the retaliation and social ignominy that reporting a rape could bring.

Trócaire categorizes the DRC as “a country rich in natural resources, yet it is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.” What accounts for this dichotomy?

The DRC is endowed with exceptional natural resources, including minerals such as cobalt and copper, hydropower potential, significant arable land, immense biodiversity, and the world’s second-largest rainforest. Hence, the DRC is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa given its wealth of natural resources – the need for it in the industrialized world. According to the World Bank, the DRC has the world’s second largest primary humid tropical forest endowment and carbon sink globally. However, forest loss rates have accelerated in recent years, and in 2020, the DRC lost 1.31 million hectares of natural forest, equivalent to 854 million tons of CO₂ emissions. This has had deleterious environmental impacts – including on climate change, biodiversity, and rainfall patterns – and is threatening the livelihoods of the 35 million people who depend on forest resources.

In addition, the struggle of who holds control over these resources has ever since been part of DRC’s history of colonialism, slavery and corruption. As we speak, there are conflicts between large foreign and national industrial mining companies and artisanal miners who fight for the exploitation of certain mining areas and claim their rights to the land. The struggle for control of this lucrative activity has also led to the involvement of armed groups, including foreign groups, who are interested in making profits from the mining business. Greater transparency and accountability is required for regulating licenses, responsible mineral sourcing, sub-contraction, standards and working conditions as well as the use of these revenues for the people in the DRC to benefit from its own resources.

Could this gap between the apparent wealth and the excruciating poverty lie at the base of the Congo’s many conflicts?

As stated above, the DRC is technically a wealthy country. However, decades of exploitation under colonial rule, followed by years of dictatorship and then armed conflicts, have left the country poverty stricken. The country is in a perpetual state of crisis and the social and humanitarian situation is alarming. Some of the biggest challenges facing the country are extremely weak public sector institutions, ongoing fighting (particularly in the eastern DRC), a high number of internally displaced persons and growing food insecurity. The situation has been made worse by recurring epidemics such as COVID-19, Ebola, cholera, and measles. On the latest United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) the DRC is ranked 175th out of the 189 countries listed.

In 2021, armed conflict and natural disasters caused massive population movements and protection incidents in an overall context of poor access to quality basic social services, weak social protection and development policies and deep gender inequalities. The evolution of these conflicts will depend on the commitment of the authorities, their approaches and policies to address the root causes of poverty and hence conflicts in the DRC.

Obviously, these conflicts create humanitarian needs. What is Trócaire doing to help?

The humanitarian situation in the DRC remains critical for millions of Congolese, mostly in the east of the country. The country remains one of the most complex and protracted humanitarian crises in the world, affected by five humanitarian impacts: population movements, acute food insecurity, acute malnutrition, epidemics and protection issues. It is estimated that 27 million people will need some sort of humanitarian assistance in 2022. This includes food, water, medicine, shelter and protection services. This year, an estimated 27 million people are acutely food insecure, which makes the DRC the country with the largest number of food insecure people in the world. Of the nearly 4.2 million people suffering from global acute malnutrition, 2.4 million are children under the age of five; 5.5 million people – the largest number on the African continent – are internally displaced, mainly due to armed conflict. People’s vulnerability is also aggravated by structural problems such as extreme poverty and the lack of basic infrastructure. The joint military operations and the deterioration of the security situation are expected to further disrupt humanitarian access to vulnerable populations in need.

Trócaire has been supporting local partner organizations and communities in the DRC since the early 1990s. We opened an office in Kinshasa in 2008 and in 2015, the Trócaire office moved to Ituri province in the eastern DRC. Based in the regional capital of Bunia, we are now closer to the affected populations and our 17 local partner organizations in Mambasa, Irumu, Djugu, Mahagi, and Aru. Our work with partners focuses on a humanitarian response providing basic needs including food, water, shelter, protection services and cash. This complements our longer-term work which promotes resilient communities through income generation and livelihoods activities, strengthening of community structures and dialogue with authorities as well as fostering women’s political and economic empowerment.