UNHCR chief urges the world not to forget the displaced in eastern Congo

News Stories, 16 October 2009

© UNHCR/D.Nthengwe
High Commissioner Guterres greets elders before engaging in a long discussion about their situation at Shasha camp.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 16 (UNHCR) Comparing the hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced civilians in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on Friday urged the international community not to forget the Congolese in their hour of need.

Speaking in the eastern DRC city of Goma, epicentre of one of the world's biggest displacement crises, Guterres noted that some 2 million people were displaced in the vast country and decried the enormity of the challenges facing the humanitarian and international community in meeting the needs of these civilians.

"If you look at the humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all the victims victims of conflict, victims of illness, health problems, of extreme poverty the number of people that die, mostly needlessly, every six months is equivalent to the [number of] victims of the Asian tsunami," he said.

"Now if you compare the massive support of the international community to the tsunami victims with the support that is given to the DRC every six months, it's a stark difference," the High Commissioner added. The 2004 tsunami killed more than 200,000 people in countries around the Indian Ocean.

Guterres, who arrived Thursday in Goma, capital of North Kivu province, has long tried to keep a spotlight on the continuing displacement crisis and violence in eastern Congo, despite the signing of a national peace accord in 2003. He last visited North Kivu in December 2007. But sporadic outbursts of violence continue to force people to flee their homes or camps.

Yesterday, the High Commissioner visited several camps for internally displaced people (IDP) in North Kivu as well as neighbouring South Kivu. He toured Shasha and Mubimbi I camp, which host victims of the multiple conflicts that have ravaged the troubled Kivus in the last three years.

In Shasha, North Kivu, Guterres met members of the Bambuti, indigenous forest hunter-gatherers also known as Pygmies who have suffered particularly badly over the years. They told him that even if peace and stability return to the region, they have nowhere to live. They appealed to the authorities for help in getting land.

In Mubimbi I, which is situated in South Kivu, Guterres meet a mixed group of IDPs some displaced in previous conflicts and others freshly driven out of their homes in a drive by the Congolese armed forces to disarm the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

The High Commissioner also visited Rutoboko in North Kivu's Masisi district, which was devastated during clashes between the Congolese armed forces and the rebel National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in 2008, causing thousands of civilians to flee.

Now many of them are returning to their villages and rebuilding their lives. All along the road there were signs of new life and hope. It is the rainy season and the returnees were busy reconstructing their homes and planting crops such as beans, bananas and cassava. The schools have reopened.

The IDPs began returning home in March 2009, when the Congolese government and the rebels signed a peace truce. But the pace quickened last month, when some 66,000 people sheltering in six UNHCR-assisted camps in and around Goma returned to their areas of origins.

Guterres assured both the IDPs and the returnees of the UN refugee agency's continued support. He said those unable to return because of the conflict in their home areas would be assisted in UNHCR-run camps, while those returning home would be provided with the support they needed to get back on their feet.

In Rutoboko, the High Commissioner met 70-year-old Muhanuka Kahunde, who returned home in September after spending nearly two years in the Buhima IDP camp on the outskirt of Goma. "I returned because there is peace and no trouble here. It is quite peaceful, we have started rebuilding our homes and clearing the land for planting," he said.

But there are others, like 42-year-old Charlin Amunazi, who are unlikely to return home soon. She fled when her village in Masisi district was overrun by armed men and now lives in the Mugunga III camp near Goma. "I fled when the fighting intensified and my husband was killed," she recalled. "Everybody fled and then the raping started, so we ran too."

Before flying to Goma, Guterres held wide-ranging talks in Kinshasa with President Joseph Kabila Kabalange, Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito, Interior Minister Celestine Mbuyu and International Cooperation Minister Raymond Shibanda as well as General Babacar Gaye, head of UN forces in the DRC.

Guterres will pay a visit to Rwanda before attending a special summit of the African Union on forcibly displaced people. The historic meeting will take place in the Ugandan capital of Kampala from Monday through Friday.

By Yusuf Hassan in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo