People living in North and South Kivu provinces of eastern DR Congo still face daily threats, extortion and violence at the hands of armed groups and government forces, despite the defeat two months ago of the rebel M23 militia, according to worldwide development organisation Oxfam. A new Oxfam report, ‘In the Balance’, has revealed that large swathes of the two provinces remain under the control of various armed groups, many of which have expanded into security vacuums left when the Congolese armed forces turned their attention to the M23.
“Military operations against armed groups run the risk of increasing the violence and abuse against civilians, particularly in remote areas,” said the report that was released Monday.
'We are balanced in the middle,' one man in Uvira, South Kivu, whose name was withheld for security reasons, told Oxfam. 'I am just worried that things will get worse because they want to fight again. But who will be the victims? Ordinary people.'
Communities across eastern Congo are affected by violence including rape, beatings and murder – often accompanied by displacement, illegal taxation and looting.
According to Oxfam, these patterns of abuse open up opportunities for armed groups or state authorities to squeeze communities for profit through illegal levies, arbitrary fines and other illegal practices.
In some areas, this kind of extortion has been institutionalised, with receipts even provided for illegal levies.
However, Oxfam’s evidence from a survey of 1,800 individuals highlighted some positive recent developments too.
It said several communities have created ‘security councils’ to bring together local leaders and state authorities, along with MONUSCO (the UN stabilisation mission in DRC) to find ways to reduce the violence and abuse.
In Rutshuru and Nyiragongo areas in North Kivu, which were previously held by M23, some people said their security had significantly improved and access to markets and fields was easier because they were no longer forced to pay taxes at barriers in and out of urban areas.
“The M23 were here for one year. Since they left, people may sell freely again, go to the market, they are now free to work. No one disturbs us, and FARDC protect us,” one village official in Nyiragongo told Oxfam.
There were also some indications of political will in the Congolese government to avoid past mistakes.
M23 members accused of war crimes have not been given a blanket amnesty and changes in the command of the army have led to improved troop behaviour in recent operations. Few abuses have been reported.
However, military operations were still ongoing against various armed groups across the Kivus.
In more remote areas of North and South Kivu, communities told Oxfam that illegal taxes increased in November and December 2013, in the lead-up to potential military operations against them by the UN peacekeeping troops in joint operations with the Congolese army.
“Protecting civilians from violence has to be at the forefront of operations,” said Oxfam country director Vincent Koch. “But this relentless extortion by armed groups must also be addressed. It makes it almost impossible for people to live their lives, to feed their families. The vulnerability exposed in this survey is quite shocking.”
Oxfam observed that recent developments such as the end of the M23 and increased regional cooperation offered a window of opportunity for peace in eastern Congo.
But an end to insecurity in the region is far from an inevitable outcome.
“Communities’ vulnerability is unlikely to change without concerted efforts by the state to protect its citizens from violence.
“These efforts need to include a strong and effective state presence beyond urban areas, a committed process of reform of the security sector, starting with DDR, as well as government initiatives to include community participation in the decisions which will affect them,” the humanitarian agency said.