Part 2: Channelling aid to Eastern Congo’s displaced people (for part 1 see beneath)
Kampala, 16 January 2014 – While the UN Intervention Brigade, Congo and Uganda are making preparations to go after the ADF rebels in Congo’s Rwenzori Mountains, worries grow over the plight of the many internally displaced people (IDP’s), who remain stuck in the region around the city of Beni, in North Kivu. Since the last two months, their situation has worsened considerably due to the aggressive presence of this Ugandan militia in the Watalinga area, situated on the Congo-Uganda border.
The ADF (Allied Democratic Front) have been a constant presence in the Watalinga area since colonial independence. Their original demands include more autonomy for the Bakonzo, who form the majority population in Kasese and Bundibudyo. In the 1990s, several violent attacks on civilian targets – including the burning of 80 school children in Kasese – increasingly gave the ADF the aura of a terrorist organization. Its current purpose includes the establishment of an Islamist Republic in Central-East Africa, which it promotes through the systematic spread of Islamic schools (madrasas) and enhanced military training.
The UN Mission in the DRC has led two operations against the ADF in 2005 and 2010. The result of this has been a partial relocation and radicalization of the movement. The ADF currently represents the biggest threat to peace in Eastern DRC after the Rwandan FDLR and the defeated M23.
Over the last two years, the group has definitely gained in strength. Its number currently reaches 1500-2.200. ADF escapees in DRC testify the existence of training camps with foreign experts (probably from Somalia). Military experts in DRC have also notified a considerable change in military tactics lately: from a relatively chaotic group, it is now very well organized, characterized by the same impenetrable levels of command and ideological training that resembles other radical groups in the region. A recently leaked UN report affirms ADF support for the July 2010 terrorist attack on a FIFA football screening in Kampala, for which Al Shabaab claimed responsibility.
On Christmas eve, the brutal killing of more than 20 people – including babies and children – in Kamango further highlighted the challenges faced by the UN Intervention Brigade, whose mandate it is to neutralise the armed group. The attack probably served to clear the path for the ADF’s Islamist leadership to move its headquarters from North Kivu to Ituri. Although heavily armed, ADF rebels hacked to death their victims with knives and machetes. One boy, whose neck was cut in half, had to walk hours to reach safety in Mutwanga, holding his head up with his hands. A human rights worker with two decades of experience in the region observes he had previously not seen anything like this.
With the help of the humanitarian Pool Fund, the Norwegian Refugee Council yesterday launched an emergency operation to assist desperate households who remain stuck in Watalinga. The NRC operation promises to be a difficult one – not in the least because of the risk for militia ransacking. Over the years the ADF has established a firm military intelligence apparatus. Its members often go unnoticed as taxi drivers, businessmen and ordinary civilians. They are easily confounded with the resident Banande population, who talk the same language.
The UN Intervention Brigade moreover risks to further jeopardize the security of IDP households staying outside the area of Watalinga. After emptying the Rwenzori Mountains and pushing populations towards localites like Oicha and Eringeti, ADF systematically abuse farmers who try to reach their fields from these emerging urban centres, hunting people literally down at the side of the main road. Since 2010, local organizations have registered over 800 kidnappings on this axis. While not all of them should automatically be attributed to the ADF, these systematic abuses have contributed to massive displacements. Over 350 households have fled Watalinga since the Christmas killing in Kamango, adding up to the 10.000 households (or over 64.000 IDP’s) who already resided in this town since 2012. Oicha has a total population of just over 122.000.
Peculiar about IDPs residing in the Beni-Watalinga area is that they do not stay in camps. Instead, the majority of them are hosted by family and friends. In the overcrowded towns, the presence of these IDP’s further adds to the precarious living conditions these host families face after two decades of war. In 2005, the NGO CARE already noted a growing tension between host families and their guests, notably for the access to much needed land these families use to maintain their livelihoods.
The presence of these displaced on the limits of the Virunga Park furthermore fuels new conflicts. While the park continues to cover around 10 percent of North Kivu’s territory, Kivus’ mobile populations are obliged to make living from temporary jobs in the cross-border economy as well as emerging urban centres. Or they work as agriculturalists for local landowners. Their jobs range from sorting coffee and cocoa beans, to crushing palm nuts and selling the residue as cooking oil. Some younger IDP’s drive their chukudu’s (wooden bikes) to transport goods on local markets. The reward for such work is often poor and discomforting, as this fled women from Rutshuru tells.
Though living conditions in town are precarious, the willingness of these internal refugees to return to their original homes is often ambivalent. Such return would depend both on their capacity and the opportunities these IDP’s would find there. Therefore, some find it better to adapt assistance to the daily realities these urbanized IDP’s face in Eastern Congo’s militarized landscape. For the time being, their plight stays in the hands of their Congolese hosts who support them with accommodation and jobs.
This research was made possible through a grant from FAFO.