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Congo's displaced find safety in volunteer work

Congo's displaced find safety in volunteer work

Mixed-sex community watch volunteers help keep down crime and abuse in sites for the internally displaced in North Kivu province.
5 March 2008
UNHCR Field Security Adviser Pierre Nazroo helps one of the volunteers lace her boots.

BUHIMBA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, March 5 (UNHCR) - Kioma Kanyere proudly shows off the pair of second-hand boots she has just received from the UN refugee agency. They will be essential in her new job helping to police the community at this camp for displaced people near Goma, capital of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

North Kivu has become one of the most dangerous parts of Africa over the past year. Renewed fighting between various different armed groups has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes over the past year, doubling the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the province.

While many are staying with friends or relatives, some 52,000 people have been registered at 21 sites near Goma and further north around Rutshuru and Masisi. But the general lawlessness and insecurity has spilled over into the camps, where the ratio of one police officer to protect every 500 IDPs is hopelessly inadequate.

That's where people like Kioma come in as members of a voluntary community watch set up in Buhimba and three other IDP settlements. They have been credited with keeping order within the sites, cutting sexual assaults and general crime, curbing forced military recruitment, battling corruption, easing inter-tribal tensions and generally allowing people to sleep easy at night.

The volunteer force gathers single and married men and women of all ages and tribal groups. Sporting colourful sashes, raincoats, torches and whistles donated by UNHCR, they patrol the camps round-the-clock. Their used boots, also from the refugee agency, offer protection from the volcanic rock that covers the region.

"We report corrupt leaders or rapists to the police. We have kept thieves and infiltrators away from bothering the community and we encourage dialogue when disputes arise," explains Kioma, a 23-year-old mother of one.

The service that she and her colleagues provide, as well as their disciplined behaviour, is appreciated by the police, aid workers and fellow IDPs. There are about 200 volunteers in the four IDP sites, compared to about 60 police officers.

"Community watch members facilitate our work, although they do not enforce the law," says police officer, Claude Musa, who adds that the community teams deserve a lot of the credit for a drop in crime on IDP sites.

That apparently includes fewer incidents of sexual violence, the prevalence of which has dropped in Mugunga I - one of the four sites with a community watch - from an average of five a week in December to less than two a week, according to Papson Okito of International Medical Corps, a UNHCR partner.

"We cannot fully attribute the drop in the number of sexual assault cases to the presence of community watch teams. We are sure, however, that they play a huge role to that end," Okito says.

"These men and women are doing us a huge favour," said Kavira Ngango, a mother of five. "They deliver children from danger. They rush the sick for treatment. During night, we catch sleep because they patrol," she adds.

IDP site resident Veronica Masika says the example of the community watch volunteers has shown how important it is for IDPs to work together. "How else should we spend our time when we are all suffering from the same consequences of war," she says, adding that community work has brought her closer to members of other tribes.

"A community watch system is very useful," says Pierre Nazroo, a UNHCR field security adviser, adding that it "brings communities together." And the volunteers are also welcomed by the UN refugee agency for their help in maintaining calm and order during aid distributions.

By David Nthengwe in Buhimba, Democratic Republic of the Congo