In the development and humanitarian aid fields, statistics can be a rather depressing reminder of how “off-track” a given region or community has become in reference to other areas of the world. Nowhere is this more true than in the multitude of reports from aid and research groups reporting on Eastern Congo. Recent reports (2007/08) from advocacy groups in Eastern Congo present some particularly discouraging key indicators, some of which I have mentioned below:
1) In many areas, particularly the East, the World Bank found that 80% of people are living on under $0.20/day. (Struggling to Survive: Children in Armed Conflict in the DRC, published by Watchlist On Children And Armed Conflict, New York)
2) In the armed groups roaming the East, at least 30,000 children continue to fight, with children making up approximately 40% of some non-state armed militias. (Child Soldiers: Global Report, published by the Coalition To Stop The Use Of Child Soldiers, London)
3) There are currently 1.6 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) who continue to live in unfamiliar areas of Congo due to threatening security situations in their home villages. 400,000 more were displaced during fighting in 2007 and 2008 in the East. Up to a million refugees continue to reside in countries bordering Congo while waiting for security to return. (Congo: Consolidating the Peace, published by International Crisis Group, Brussels)
4) Eastern Congo’s current mortality rate is 2.6 deaths per 1,000 per month, which is 85% higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 2.1 million deaths have occurred because of so-called’indirect consequences of conflict’ since 2003. (Mortality in the DRC: An Ongoing Crisis, published by the International Rescue Committee)
However, hidden within these devastating statistics are hints that Eastern Congo is making progress on numerous fronts. I find the statistics concerning repatriation of IDP’s and refugees to be particularly illuminating in terms of showing a turn around in Eastern Congo. These so–called “voluntary returnees” choose to live again in Congo, a place they once decided to flee for fear of losing their lives. What could be a stronger statement of progress and improving regional security? Refugee movement from protected camps to their homes in Congo shows the hopes of large groups of Congolese to live in peace again are being realized bit by bit. Across the Kivu provinces over the last year, I have many refugees returning from years abroad in camps in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania. The number of IDPs across Congo has reduced by almost one million people over the last 4 years, and the number of refugees living abroad continues to drop. In even the most remote villages, you will see the tell-tale signs of returned refugees: UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) tarps and cooking supplies, temporary shelter for the newest rivals from abroad, and UNHCR canvas covered cargo trucks filled with people and their possessions en route to their homes. Regional flare-ups regularly alter the statistics showing a positive trend in reference to returning refugees, but the statistics continue to provide evidence that the situation in Congo is dynamic and region specific, and not the static, unchanging zone of conflict that many continue to mark it as.
This weekend, I was with Arche d’Alliance in the villages outside of Uvira, close to the border with Burundi. Arche d’Alliance had organized Congolese magistrates to arrive in the villages to assist some recently returned refugees in the villages to officially assert their intentions to stay in Congo, prove their Congolese nationality, and attempt to acquire their all-important state identification documents for the first time. Most of the returning refugees had been gone for about a decade, during which Burundian troops and non-state militias stormed into Congo through the villages, forcing civilian flight over the border into camps in Burundi. The majority of kids under 10 that were being represented at the tribunal had been born abroad in the camps, and many of them did not even speak Swahili well, but instead Kirundi, which became their native language while living in Burundi camps.
Their cases were heard all morning and afternoon, and the process to get these returned refugees their documentation has begun. However, it is unknown what the end result will be. Until they receive their official Congolese documents, the villagers are extremely vulnerable, and are unable to move to new places or cross the border. This inability to move becomes a significant problem because many returned refugees have their families from close by villages which are still not quite secure still living across the border in Burundi. In addition, it is impossible for them to benefit from things available in Burundi, but not in Eastern Congo, such as good hospitals, working social services, or well-stocked markets and drug stores. Registering for school and receiving medical care are great inconveniences without proper identification, as are efforts to report violations of human rights or sexual assaults which continue to plague the Kivu provinces. Despite the incredible gesture of arriving once again in Congo, the returnees remain at a temporary standstill.
The Congo as a state has been so weakened by insecurity and corruption that it is largely unable to accommodate returning refugees to give them any sort of helping hand in restarting their lives. The identification process has been started to give these villagers their citizenship back on an official basis due to Arche d’Alliance’s efforts and the villagers’ willingness to sit and wait for hours to begin a process that could take years. Now the wait begins for the state to act in a positive way on their behalf and to support those who have confidence in a peaceful Congolese future despite sometimes overwhelming evidence on the contrary. The presence of so many repatriated Congolese in a village which was emptied due to insecurity until 2006 shows that things do change, and that people, albeit slowly, are beginning to consider life in the Congo as better than life abroad as refugees. Movement home is just one step towards rebuilding a Congo civilians can live peacefully in, but in terms of importance, this step cannot be overemphasized.
The hope personified by returning refugees across Eastern Congo is one that is often neglected and overlooked in light of all the other information coming from Congo, and can only be given the proper voice by strong advocacy campaigns concentrating not only on populations in conflict and flight from violence but also on populations optimistically trying to start anew after long absences from their homes in Congo.
Posted Oct 7th, 2008