Walter James (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Walter graduated in 2006 from the University of Minnesota. Following college, he worked on international development in Haiti and Senegal, and studied human rights and international development in Senegal, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Walter first visited Eastern Congo as a 2009 Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project, where he documented the work of civil society organizations such as SOS Femmes en Danger, Arche d’Alliance, and Tunza Mazingira. The following year, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy with a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

24 Oct

So, what is the situation in Uvira/Fizi these days?   There are wars and rumors of wars.  With the elections approaching, the activity of armed groups, most notably Mai Mai Yakutumba in the Ubwari Peninsula, has reached its highest level yet in 2011.

Vacillating internal displacement has created a host of humanitarian concerns in/around the Ubwari Peninsula, where the most concentrated fighting has occurred between FARDC forces and the allied Mai Mai Yakutumba/FNL/FDLR rebels.  As rumors of combat sweep through the villages and towns of the Ubwari, civilians will flee before fighting turns up in their locality.  Alternately, IDPs will return home immediately if fighting has ceased or has not occurred in their area.  However, this has created a yo-yo effect, with civilians fleeing and returning home multiple times over the last several months.  In some cases, returning IDPs are crossing paths with fleeing IDPs from their home areas.  An additional concern is that there is not enough of a humanitarian presence in/around the Ubwari to monitor the situation and respond to humanitarian concerns resulting from the back-and-forth IDP movements.

In one of their most recent monitoring reports, Arche d’Alliance reported that between 8/24 and 9/22, approximately 2,375 persons fled to Baraka alone; these IDPs arrived from the Ubwari, as well as from towns such as Kazimia and Sebele.

Since August, battles between FARDC and allied Mai Mai/FNL/FDLR forces have been reported in the following locations: Nemba, Talama, Yungu, Kikonde, Katenga, Sebele, and Karamba.

Due to the large numbers of IDPs fleeing the Ubwari, MONUSCO deployed Egyptian troops to Sebele to set up a TOB (Temporary Operations Base).  However, on October 19th, MONUSCO recalled the Egyptians, despite the request of the humanitarian community in Fizi Territory to extend the TOB.  According to OCHA sources, civilians in Sebele are now afraid of reprisal due to the lack of a MONUSCO troops presence.

On October 9th, gunshots were heard in the proximity of Baraka, sending the population into a panic.  For a while, reports were that Mai Mai Yakutumba were fighting the FARDC in the streets of Baraka, and therefore poised to take the most important town in all of Fizi.  However, it was soon revealed that the rumors were false.  Nonetheless, commerce through Baraka remains difficult because of Yakutumba’s presence on Lake Tanganyika, and prices of basic goods are reported to be soaring.

OCHA sources in Baraka report that since the increase in combat (and increase in FARDC fighting forces in their area), there has been a rise in human rights abuses committed by troops against civilians.  Monitors have cited multiple incidents of arbitrary arrests, extortion, and general harassment.  One must remember that there is quite a bit of mutual distrust and suspicion between the FARDC troops, many of which are not from Fizi, and the local population.

An interesting effect of the rising (and continuing) violence and warfare is that Congolese refugee repatriations are all but nonexistent in this area.  Since the days of the Congo Wars, people from Uvira/Fizi have fled to neighboring countries, in particular Burundi and Tanzania.  Despite the fact that President Joseph Kabila has claimed that the “fire in the East is only embers”, the news of continuing unrest has reached the ears of refugees, and they are not ready to come back to a region where lives and livelihoods are still at risk.  Another sad aspect of the entire affair is that the Tanzanian government is starting to use coercive methods to “encourage” Congolese refugees in their country to repatriate.

In general, the recent increase in the activity of certain non-state armed groups is very disheartening.  Many of these armed groups, including so-called “local defense leagues”, continue to commit acts of sexual violence and paralyze the economy through extortion and larceny.  Their behavior mirrors the well-documented human rights abuses of the FARDC, many of whom were formerly members of rebel groups themselves.  There is nothing that “new” about these groups; the non-state armed groups, such as the various “Mai Mai” movements, have existed for over 10 years in eastern Congo.  However, possibly the most disturbing aspect about the actions of these non-state armed groups is the excuse that their violent behavior is but a means of political expression, communicating through robbery and rape their dissatisfaction with the Congolese government.  No roads?  No hospitals?  No jobs?  Rape women!  That will get Kabila’s attention!

The current pre-election conditions in Uvira/Fizi are indicative of a number of Congolese problems: the lack of faith in elections and the political system, the continuing impunity of armed groups, the lack of effective security resources, the staggering injustices resulting from deep-seated gender inequality, and the use of violence as a means of political expression.

As the election date grows closer, we hold our breath.  There is not much hope that the outcome of the election will necessarily signal a change for improvements in the Congolese political system, no matter who gets elected, but one wishes that the “Fire in the East” would be extinguished instead of downplayed and ignored.


Posted Oct 24th, 2011

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