Displaced by Endless War


House, home and family are under siege in Congo

The conflict that has been called the world's deadliest since WWII is being waged right in the midst of communal life in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). At the vortex of Congo's seemingly endless war, civilians endure violence that is punctuated as much by psychological wounds as by gunfire. The vast tide of displaced Congolese—for whom home has become a battlefield, live in a reality in which women have come to expect rape rather than love and children learn to kill before they can read. Their traumas—in refugee and IDP camps and in impoverished communities in the path of the conflict—are the everyday casualties of the war in Congo. 

Far from home

Since a resurgence of rebel clashes in October 2008, an estimated 250,000 people have fled to Goma, a border town in North Kivu Province. The newest displaced join 750,000 others who arrived at various points during the last 15 years of fighting—a mix of Congolese IDPs and refugees from the Rwanda genocide. Civilians seem to be carried by the gale forces of destruction in this war, moving from one place to another as militias bloody their communities again and again.

AJWS's partner, Kivu Refugee Network,* reported in November: "No human being can stand the sight of the scenes that are unfolding. MONUC [the UN's peacekeeping mission] announced that more than 150 people were killed. Our center was looted and all our staff and my family have run away. You will know as soon as we have a proof of life or learn their whereabouts."

Many of the people displaced this fall suffered through the winter rains in crude tents near the MONUC headquarters, or huddled in churches or community centers, after having abandoned their farms and sources of subsistence in their communities of origin. Those surviving in makeshift settlements are among eastern Congo's most desperate. According to one of our partners nearby, they "have no assistance. The situation is disastrous." Other refugees seek assistance with local families, taxing their hosts' already meager resources. "The food crisis is hitting hard," says a grantee who declined to be named. "I am currently hosting 17 people in my house and we are getting by on one meal a day."

Those who reached the established refugee camps that gird the city are faring better—but not much. AJWS's grantees there report that aid from UNHCR, the UN and a patchwork of other agencies has been insufficient to feed the displaced, leading to water-borne disease and malnutrition. The camps also provide little refuge against the brutality that the displaced tried to leave behind. In November, rebels raided and destroyed several IDP camps in Kiwanja, north of Goma, forcing thousands to flee again. Militias wage night killing and raping sprees, and violence is committed both among the displaced in the scramble for resources and by frustrated police and security forces.

The war against women

Women and girls are violated with alarming frequency and largely without consequences. They are kidnapped by soldiers and brutalized or attacked by men in the camps.

"I was raped by a ruthless military man who kept me nine months with six other girls," says 20-year-old Sifa. "We were beaten and raped every day." Fifteen-year-old Sylvie "was kidnapped by a sergeant of the Regular Army, 11th Brigade. He handcuffed me, tortured and raped me continuously for 10 days," She says. Both girls found SOFEDI Action, which cared for them and provided HIV testing and vocational training. Like many in their situation, they bore babies fathered by their unknown rapists.

in one particularly brutal case, soldiers murdered and dismembered 32-year-old Yvonne's husband right in front of her. "Afterwards, 12 of them raped me," she says. "They found my daughters, 15 and 12 who were hiding in the room, and raped them too." SOFEDI is helping Yvonne and her children—impregnated by their attackers—pick up the pieces of their lives.

Rape was criminalized in Congo in 2006, but the legislation has had little impact on the eastern region. SOFEDI's director, Viviane Sebahire, says that the greatest challenge is "combating impunity for those who violate the rape law, because more often than not, perpetrators are not prosecuted and punished." Most women don't report sexual attacks out of fear and shame, and the government lacks the capacity to mobilize effective law enforcement and judicial operations in a conflict zone. Yet in some cases, justice is possible. Sylvie's attacker tried to abduct her again after she escaped, and SOFEDI lobbied for his arrest. The organization works to help survivors speak out. "It is critical that they break the silence." 

Guns in the hands of children

Displaced children are under a different kind of attack. Without school, recreation or visible prospects for a future in the camps, they are highly vulnerable to abduction by militias. Armed groups lure them with the promise of a better life and train them to be ruthless killers. Most die on the battlefield, used by rebel groups as disposable "human shields."

WITNESS's Bukeni Tete Waruzi, formerly director of AJWS grantee, the Child Soldier Project, describes what happens to children seduced by militias: "They are trained to kill; their minds are altered. They learn how to manipulate weapons, how to use knives, how to forcibly kill someone." Girl soldiers, he says, "are sexually abused—not only by the commanders, but by the entire group."

The militias have a tremendous psychological hold on these children raised in upheaval, providing them with structure, a sense of community and an outlet for anger and frustration that they often don't find in their war-torn communities. AJWS grantee, Get Ahead,* rescued 80 child combatants in late January and is working to rehabilitate them. "Not enough is being done by the [aid] agencies," says its director, "to keep children occupied and entertained, to reduce the incentives for them to re-enroll." Get Ahead will work closely with these fragile kids for as long as it takes, pending availability of funds, to provide them with activity and prospects for a future without violence.

An end to the terror

A long series of ceasefires and diplomacy efforts have so far failed to bring peace to eastern Congo. Waruzi comments on his country's uncertain future: "I think the DRC is still really far away from long-term, or even mid-term, stability. We hope that the involvement of the international community and the regional stakeholders can help us build a strong nation."

In the meantime, he thinks that salvation can come on an individual level: "As an African, as a Congolese, I don't have money to give them, I don't have power, but if I can save the lives of one or two children, that is my contribution to my community. Five million people have died as a result of the conflict in the Congo. It's time to think about doing as much as we can for ourselves."

*Non-governmental organizations in Congo are vulnerable to attack. Their names have been changed or omitted to ensure their security.

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