The United Nations refugee agency condemned rampant abuse against civilians in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), amid fighting that has uprooted nearly half a million people over the past four months.
“Our staff and partners in Uganda, Rwanda and eastern DRC have been receiving regular and extensive reports of widespread human rights violations and abuses,” a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Andrej Mahecic, told reporters in Geneva.
“These include indiscriminate and summary killings of civilians, rape and other sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary arrests, assaults, looting, extortion of food and money, destruction of property, forced labour, forced military recruitment, including children, and ethnically-motivated violence,” he added.
DRC troops have been fighting the so-called M23, a group of former national army soldiers who mutinied in April, and have since been moving in north-eastern parts of the country, including in the provinces of North Kivu and Province Orientale. The DRC troops have received support from peacekeepers serving with the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
UN officials and the Security Council have condemned the M23’s attacks, with the Council demanding that all forms of support to it and other armed groups in the country cease immediately.
The violence is believed to have displaced more than 470,000 people in eastern DRC. This includes some 220,000 people in North Kivu, 200,000 in South Kivu province, and more than 51,000 who have fled to neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.
“UNHCR urges parties to the conflict to avoid targeting the civilian population and populated areas,” said Mahecic. “We call on all parties to the conflict to take all steps to protect the civilian population and to prevent indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.”
As the fighting continues, large areas of North Kivu have been left without an adequate security presence, according to UNHCR. In the province’s Masisi and Walikale territories, several armed groups have taken advantage of the power vacuum to attack villages as well as settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The armed groups have destroyed and looted houses, killed people belonging to ethnic groups seen as hostile, and subjected entire communities to extortion.
UNHCR says that forced recruitment is also widespread. Earlier this month, for example, an armed group in the town of Rutshuru, in North Kivu, forced 145 people to transport their ammunition. Some IDPs were beaten and injured for refusing to join another armed group.
Then refugee agency and its partners are providing shelter, protection, medical and psycho-social counselling for victims of violence in the camps and settlements of Uganda and Rwanda, but the deteriorating security situation in eastern DRC is severely affecting the agency’s capacity to deliver assistance outside the established IDP camps north and west of Goma, the capital of North Kivu.