Q&A: Former health minister seeks a peace cure for DRC
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, July 25 (UNHCR) - A doctor by profession, Professor Mashako Mamba served as Minister of Health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from 1999-2003. Currently a member of the National Assembly, he has played an important role in efforts to restore peace to his troubled homeland. Mamba took part in peace talks that led to the signing in January of a peace accord - the so-called Acts of Engagement - between the government and rival armed groups in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu. He is currently deputy coordinator of the Amani Programme, a mixed technical commission on peace and security operating in the two Kivus, Maniema, Orientale and Katanga provinces. He spoke recently to UNHCR External Relations Officer Francesca Fontanini about the situation in the east and efforts to secure lasting peace. Excerpts from the interview:
You recently visited Rutshuru, the area in North Kivu with the greatest number of internally displaced people (IDP). What was their condition?
It was a very dramatic trip. There is a silent humanitarian drama going on in some areas of the east [of DRC]. I say silent because little is known in the outside world about the suffering of the 1.3 million IDPs [internally displaced people].... Basic infrastructure is almost non-existent. Health centres and schools have been destroyed, while many of the displaced are sheltering in churches. Many schools are almost empty because most of the students have fled. The malnutrition rate among children is about 17 percent.
Due to displacement, people have missed six harvests since 2006. Those who return often face land disputes. Meanwhile, the staple crops of manioc and banana have been hit by a virus and production has gone down.
I met children who were working to help their families get extra food to supplement their meagre rations. There were people who had been assaulted, detained, robbed, who saw their siblings being killed. Some were traumatized and still recovering from the atrocities they witnessed or suffered. Many people feel desperate and struggle to keep going each day. This situation needs to end and, for this reason, instruments like the Amani Programme and the Acts of Engagement - if properly implemented and monitored - should help restore peace and allow people to return home.
What are the main obstacles for IDPs and refugees to return?
The [South and North Kivu] provinces in the east have suffered a high level of destruction to their social and economic infrastructures. According to an IRC [International Rescue Committee] report published earlier this year, about 5.4 million people have lost their lives there since 1998, mainly as a result of conflict, disease and starvation. The DRC, moreover, has the second highest mortality rate in the world. The national child and infant mortality rates are another serious concern, with most youngsters dying from preventable diseases such as malaria and measles. Access to health care is poor.
Violence against women and children is another problem, even for those living in IDP settlements. Can you tell us a bit about this?
North Kivu has the largest IDP population - 857,600 - in the DRC. It also has the worst record [of sexual and gender-based violence] against women. In 2007 and the first four months of this year, there were more than 50 cases of rape a day. It is also a problem in South Kivu. These abuses contribute to an increase in the risk of HIV transmission.
Sexual violence is used as a war weapon and as a tool of domination based on fear. Women and young girls, especially, are the victims. They are traumatized physically and psychologically. This brutal violence destroys the women, destroys families and destroys our country.
When can we talk about a definitive return home for IDPs and refugees?
It is hard to say. There are presently about 40 indigenous armed groups ranging from the north-east to the south-east. In addition, there are armed groups from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, the Sudan, Central African Republic and Chad operating on DRC territory. The presence of all these armed groups is behind the circulation and proliferation of illegal arms as well as the illegal exploitation of mineral resources such as coltan, diamonds and gold as well as the country's flora and fauna. These groups levy illegal taxes, which pushes people to seek refuge in IDP camps or to flee overseas.
What role do humanitarian organizations like UNHCR play in implementing the Amani Programme?
Humanitarian actors are very important for delivering social services to the population. UNHCR is present on the ground and its humanitarian work is remarkable. The whole of the humanitarian community is ready to support the objectives of the Amani Programme with development and rebuilding projects in both Kivus. This programme is a big step on the road to the consolidation of peace. But there is still much to do.
There will be undoubtedly be very intense discussions within the framework of the Amani Programme in order to go forward with the peace process, which was outlined by the Acts of Engagement signed in [the north Kivu capital] Goma in January 2008. It is important that the various armed groups respect their commitments so that the various public projects can be implemented.
Do you personally work closely with UNHCR?
Yes. As president of the technical commission on humanitarian and peace affairs set up under the Amani Programme, I work regularly with UNHCR at the central and provincial levels. Recently, I participated in a meeting of the Tripartite Commission in Kinshasa between the DRC, Uganda and UNHCR. The humanitarian situation is dramatic and we must understand that stabilization of the situation will not only affect the DRC, but also the region.