“The generosity and faith you see on the part of people in distress is amazing,” Ridout said. “I was in a camp where a man was running from danger in the forest with his wife and two children. There were two other kids, a boy and a girl, who had been separated from their family. They had no idea what had happened to them.
“He took these two children and now they’re part of his family. . . . You see people reaching out to help one another all the time. It’s truly inspirational.”
Ridout is a senior communications manager for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Civil war has brewed at various intensities over the past 12 years and gained the often faltering attention of the developed world.
Rising intensity in a long-term conflict
Attention–and a spike in violence–occurred last fall as ethnic Hutus based in nearby Rwanda battled with government forces. Complicating the situation were rebel groups of ethnic Tutsis, which recently allied with the government and signed a peace deal earlier this week. Tensions between Hutus and Tutsis precipitated the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
In the crosshairs are the eastern Congo provinces of North and South Kivu. The area is rich in natural resources, including gold, diamonds and Columbite-Tantalite, an ore mined as a key component of cellular phone batteries. The wealth of such materials and long-standing political instability has been a recipe for misery among many of the native Congolese.
“Because of the magnitude of the conflict, the size of the country and how long it has been going on, the DRC does tend to get lost in the big picture,” said Rory Anderson, World Vision’s deputy director of advocacy and government relations.
Anderson said estimates are in the neighborhood of 5 million dead since the beginning of the on-again, off-again fighting.
The DRC is roughly the size of two-thirds of the continental United States. Even the comparatively smaller Kivu regions protecting the population have been a severe challenge for deployed United Nations forces. Anderson said there were about 16,000 U.N. troops in the region, which make it dispersed and difficult to respond quickly to upshoots of violence.
Helping the citizens left homeless by the fighting is where many aid organizations, including Christian groups such as World Vision and World Relief pick up the slack. It is, by any stretch of the imagination, a herculean task.
“It is an enormous country to begin with,” Ridout explained in a telephone interview from her office in North Kivu’s capital, Goma. “In many places there is a big issue with inaccessibility. What you do notice when you get to talk to people in these areas is that they have been displaced multiple times.
“When the fighting broke out last fall you had whole camps that disappeared and changed with all the moving around.”
The amount of displacement was immense.
“During that time in late 2008, it was nearly impossible to track people,” said Paul Rebman, director of disaster response for World Relief. “The estimate of displaced people was between 250,000 to 300,000 people. However, as most people took refuge in host communities or informal settings (such as makeshift housing, or seeking refuge in forests) it was incredibly difficult to monitor movements or determine where all of these people were relocating to.
“Now that people are returning to their home communities, it is more feasible to reach these populations in an effort to work together to meet their immediate and mid-term needs.”
Recent news reports have indicated some residents have been able to relocate to their towns and villages, but there is neither a quick nor an easy solution to be had.
“In the past couple of months, there has been a significant level of calm and security,” Rebman said. “As a result, most people have initiated the process to return to their home communities.
“What they have found upon returning is that fields, harvests, livestock, food stocks, and household items have been looted. The U.N. has reported that both the rebel forces and the national army of DRC are equally responsible for these thefts and lootings. There remains great need, both for immediate sustenance as well as in an effort to re-establish livelihoods, economies, agricultural systems, and infrastructures.”
Children, women caught in the middle
Children are often the most impacted victims of any refugee crisis and the DRC is no exception.
As Ridout illustrated earlier, children being separated from their families and forced to fend on their own is a reality. So too is the conscription of young boys unwillingly into military service, most notoriously in the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA is a Ugandan-based insurgent force active in terrorizing areas of the eastern Congo and bordering South Sudan.
“Historically, this has been a significant issue in DRC, although difficult to track exactly and get precise numbers, as many minors are unaccounted for due to many reasons,” World Relief’s Rebman said. “In working with children, both through educational programs with the school structures, as well as through church mobilization initiatives, organizations are able to reach out to youths, who may otherwise fall between the cracks, in an effort to show care and educate them about the perils of conflict and warfare.
“Programs are also available to re-integrate former child combatants into the mainstream educational system and develop ‘normal’ social networks and skills.”
Included are efforts to try and help kids experience a small taste of what North Americans would consider ordinary childhood experiences.
“One of the new initiatives we’re working on is having temporary structures in displacement camps where there are safe places for children simply to go and play,” Ridout said. “Children can knit, play music and get some basic schooling. You want to show them a different side of life than they may have experienced.”
Women, too, have been sexually victimized in the conflict. As has been reported in the ongoing civil war in the Sudanese region of Darfur, physical intimidation and rape are repeated tactics in the DRC.
“When you have women, as we do, in Congo who have suffered multiple rapes and genital mutilation, it adds to the complexity and makes it that much harder for people to fathom,” World Vision’s Anderson said.
Toward the future
The multiple layers of the DRC conflict assure there will not be a quick fix. Peace deals and cease-fires in areas with multiple ethnicities and lucrative resources have proven tenuous many times over in the developing world.
One of the greatest assets, Anderson said, is some of the people who are suffering the most.
“I can honestly say the Congolese people are the most wonderful people you would ever want to meet,” she said. “On the whole they are welcoming and kind-hearted. That is part of what makes it so difficult to see these legacies of bad governance and being over-run by violence.”
This is precisely why there will be a need for international aid groups even if the current calming lasts.
“From a World Relief perspective, we will continue to work with the most vulnerable and meet the needs of the suffering populations,” Rebman said, “The conflict in the DRC is long-standing and very complex. It will require international peace agreements as well as community-based peace and reconciliation programs which are integrated with traditional relief and development programming.”
Faith, too, plays a central role is shaping how the future unfolds.
“The church has sent missionaries to different parts of the Congo for centuries,” Anderson said. “Most people, even in remote areas, will know who Jesus is and a sense of what the church does.
“We still absolutely need to pray for our brothers and sisters. It’s also an opportunity for philanthropic and public policy-minded Christians to get involved and be part of a vital voice to bring healing.”
Congo peace deal: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5j-U_1NZdVdXyssb9DPt47IHx7j7Q
Outline of recent military movements, alliances: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7910081.stm
Review of Rwandan genocide: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/1288230.stm
World Vision: http://www.worldvision.org/
World Relief: http://www.wr.org/