Congo-Kinshasa: When Thousands Suddenly Take Flight
Kinshasa — Tens of thousands of people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have fled their homes amid an army offensive against Ugandan rebels, presenting fresh impetus to humanitarian agencies' efforts to adapt their response mechanisms to sudden displacement.
Local NGOs listed 50,000 displaced civilians who had taken flight since DRC military operations against the Allied Democratic Forces/National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF/NALU) started on 25 June in the North Kivu district of Beni.
"There are more than that," said Omar Kavota, the president of civil society groups in Beni, adding that some villages had been totally abandoned.
"The [military] strategy should be redefined when it comes to the protection of civilians and their villages," he urged.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on 15 July that 37,000 people had been officially registered as displaced in Beni District.
A large wave of displacement was prompted by a 28 June attack - allegedly a rebel reprisal against the offensive - on the village of Mutwanga, which left eight civilians dead. Further attacks took place from the second week of July, with the ADF/NALU, estimated to number around 1,300 fighters, again being blamed by witnesses.
MONUSCO not supporting offensive
Unlike previous operations against Rwandan rebels in eastern DRC, this offensive enjoys no support from the UN mission in the country, MONUSCO (formerly MONUC).
"We have the duty to suppress all the armed groups in our country. We appreciate the presence of MONUSCO, which is here to support us, but it was never said we had to seek permission from anyone to carry out our duties," government spokesman Lambert Mende told reporters on 13 July.
"The supposed threat to civilians is a fake problem," he added.
Shortly before the operation started, a MONUSCO source told IRIN peacekeepers were reluctant to support the offensive precisely because of this threat.
"The last time we had joint operations there in 2005, 120-150 ADF-NALU were killed and 150,000 people displaced," the source said, adding that he believed the group to be "dormant".
Since then Beni has been largely spared the violence that ravaged other parts of eastern DRC and pushed the total number of internally displaced people (IDPs) to 1.8 million.
"It is the first time since 2006 that population movements are caused by this particular conflict," OCHA spokesman Maurizio Giuliano said.
While the focus of the DRC government, the UN Security Council and international donors is now on "stabilization" (the word provides the "S" in MONUSCO), aid workers say this latest crisis underlines the need for continued emergency assistance capacity.
"A couple of months ago, this zone was considered relatively stable... We think that it's very important to be engaged in the stabilization process but we also want to maintain a capacity of response to any crisis that may happen in the future," Frédéric Sizaret, the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) emergency coordinator in DRC, told IRIN.
Together with OCHA, UNICEF is the lead agency in a multi-sector programme called Rapid Response to Movements of Population (RRMP), through which international donors fund emergency items and situational analysis.
"In case of a crisis, we do not have to buy the supplies and hire the teams, which can take a lot of time," said Magalie Salazar, UNICEF's RRMP coordinator. Under RRMP, international NGOs AVSI, Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, Solidarités and Save the Children have staff at the ready to address the urgent consequences of population movements with household items, water and sanitation equipment and education for schoolchildren for up to three months.
"The people who fled live in sub-human conditions. Most of them sleep outside, some of them on the bare ground. Others have nothing to eat or need urgent medical treatment that they cannot get," Kavota said of those affected by the conflict in Beni District.
As of 13 July, some 2,000 IDPs in this crisis had received assistance through RRMP, according to OCHA.
As displacement patterns evolve, creating an increasingly intricate web of flight and return routes on eastern DRC's map, so RRMP agencies have adapted their responses.
From 2010, assistance is no longer distributed according to whether beneficiaries are fleeing, returning or hosting IDPs in their own homes.
"We had more and more zones where displaced and returned people lived side by side. In some villages, we had one partner [agency] assisting the displaced and another one assisting returnees," Sizaret said.
Now the needs of entire populations in displacement areas are assessed with questionnaires and scorecards - in Beni evaluations began on 2 July - in an effort to deliver blanket assistance as rapidly and efficiently as possible.
One approach introduced by RRMP in 2009 was to bring local suppliers into crisis response.
"Instead of distributing kits that we purchase abroad, we have been thinking of new mechanisms such as NFI [non-food item] fairs," Sizaret explained.
Instead of getting a standard NFI kit, those caught up in crises are given vouchers with roughly the same value as the kits.
"The idea is to let the population decide what they really need. So instead of buying a cooking set or a blanket, if a family thinks that it is more important for its future to buy a sewing machine, then it can," Sizaret said.
Around 30 percent of RRMP's distributions are now done this way. In some cases, vouchers can even be used to pay school fees.
Some of the programme's agencies have gone a step further and distributed cash to those affected by rapid displacement.