Friday, February 24, 2006

Congolese flee rape and murder by taking refuge on floating islands

David Lewis:

Thousands of civilians have taken refuge on floating islands in the lakes of Congo's Katanga province to escape rape and murder by government and militia fighters, a top U.N. humanitarian official said on Thursday.

Some 120,000 people have fled their homes in the remote Mitwaba area, where hundreds of women have been raped during fighting between the army and former pro-government militiamen that U.N. peacekeepers are unable to control, he added.

Congo is staggering towards elections, due later this year, but fighting continues in Katanga and elsewhere in the lawless east, where minerals are plentiful and gunmen continue to roam, nearly three years after the war was officially declared over.

Daniel Augstburger, the head of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Congo, said many people had taken refuge on islands formed by clumps of papyrus plants floating on lakes in Katanga's Upemba National Park.

"In and around Upemba there are thousands of people living on floating islands because it is the only place they feel safe," he said. "There is systematic sexual violence. Hundreds of women have been treated for rape."

He said it was difficult to know exactly how many rapes there had been as many women were afraid to come forward.

Local militias in the southern mining province of Katanga were originally armed by the government in Kinshasa to fight against Rwandan-backed rebels during Congo's five year war.

Since the war officially ended in 2003, some of the gunmen, rag-tag fighters known as Mai Mai who anoint themselves with potions they believe make them invincible, have been integrated into Congo's new army.

Others, however, have turned their guns on the population.

At the end of last year, government forces launched attacks on the Mai Mai, vowing to put an end to their reign of terror and allow elections to be held.

But, as with most units in Congo's army, which is supposed to unite former government forces and rebels, the soldiers are ill-disciplined, seldom paid and poorly fed.

"Both sides are living off the backs of the population -- there is total impunity. There are attacks, murders, mutilation and pillaging," Augstburger said.

"There are now more than 120,000 who are displaced in Mitwaba," an area 400 km (250 miles) north of the Lubumbashi, the capital of copper-rich Katanga.

Congo is home to some 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers, making it the world body's largest peacekeeping mission. But they are spread thinly across the vast country and just several hundred have been deployed to Katanga, which is the size of France.

Humanitarian crises elsewhere in the Congo, where aid workers say fighting and war-related hunger and disease kill 1,000 people a day, mean there are also only a handful of organisations looking after Katanga's displaced.

"We are trying to get more humanitarian actors into Katanga," Augstburger said. "Congo provides us with an enormous list of crises. We can't be everywhere as we don't have unlimited resources."

Due to the severity of the crisis, which is compounded by drought in some parts of Katanga and the plundering by gunmen of what little food stocks civilians had, the U.N. has begun transporting food into Mitwaba by helicopter.

International organisations this month launched a $681 million appeal to help ease the humanitarian crisis in the Congo, which has been called the deadliest since World War Two and has killed an estimated 4 million people since 1998.

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In War-Riddled Congo, Militias Rape with Impunity


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