A year ago, Goma town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was temporarily home to tens of thousands displaced by fighting between government forces and various armed groups. Now, many have returned to their villages.
"It does not mean peace has come to [the] Kivus," a military observer in Goma, capital of North Kivu Province, said. "Some villagers are relatively safer, but the general situation is still very volatile."
Goma hosted about 140,000 displaced people (IDPs) in camps at the height of violence in North Kivu in 2008 and 2009, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. In early 2009, some started voluntarily leaving the camps and now 77,000 have left.
"Places like Goma have improved, but you can put concentric circles around the town," Karl Steinacker, UNHCR coordinator for eastern DRC, said. "The further you go, the worse it gets. It is a situation of return, displacement and movement."
There are 47 camps in North and South Kivu, hosting more than 117,000 IDPs at present. These include 15,000 who were displaced by clashes between armed groups in December.
The violence is the bane of the Kivu region. In a recent attack, on 11 February, the FDLR, a Rwandan rebel group based in eastern DRC and the target of UN-backed FARDC (DRC army) operations, reportedly killed seven women who were going to Bisembe forest market in Rutshuru area. Eight escaped, but only three reached home.
Alan Doss, head of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), said it was an act of cowardice because the FDLR targeted the most vulnerable. MONUC is working with the FARDC to secure that zone.
"Armed men still roam the villages," said a former IDP from Bukavu in South Kivu who now lives in Goma. "There is no effective government in much of North and South Kivu. Until government arrives, it is a free-for-all."
Photo: Les Neuhaus/IRIN
|A UN peacekeeper at a camp for the displaced near Goma: The conflict in the Kivus is fuelled by vast natural resources in the region, including gold (file photo)|
Most of the recent violence is blamed on the FDLR, whose strength, according to military observers in Goma, is about 5,000.
"The FDLR are like bees in a corner," Esteban Sacco, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in North Kivu, told IRIN. "Nothing happens when you don't touch them, but if you poke them, trouble will break out."
Some 1.36 million people are displaced in Kivu region, according to OCHA, one million of whom fled their homes in 2009.
UNHCR is worried about the situation in some camps. "In Kichanga, IDPs are being used for forced labour," said Masti Notz, head of the UNHCR North Kivu office. "We have increasing concerns about what is going on."
Attacks against aid workers are another source of worry. On 13 February, local NGO employees were ambushed and lost property in Rutshuru, according to security sources.
In January alone, some 20 attacks targeting humanitarian actors were recorded in North Kivu.
"We have had 14 incidents in Masisi alone since the year began," Sacco said.
Raphael Wakenge, head of the civil society group Congolese Coalition for Transitional Justice, said that "people may be willing to return but worry" about insecurity.
"The return conditions are not attractive; there is no guarantee of security," he told IRIN. "When you visit Fizi territory there are military operations that are hindering population return."
Photo: Aubrey Graham/IRIN
|An IDP camp near Goma: Some 1.36 million people are displaced in Kivu region, according to OCHA, one million of whom fled their homes in 2009 (file photo)|
A new offensive was launched in January to rout the FDLR. The operation, code-named Amani Leo, Swahili for “Peace Today”, replaced Kimia II, which was strongly criticized by human rights watchdogs for abuses against civilians.
According to Wakenge, Kimia II was "a good initiative" that was spoilt by "civilian protection issues".
Koen Vlassenroot of the University of Ghent wrote in a paper that it complicated the local political and military situation, and had a dramatic humanitarian impact.
"Even more worrisome was the conduct of the new integrated Congolese army brigades, which were reported to be increasingly involved in gross human rights violations, including random killings of civilians in the new territories of control," Vlassenroot noted.
Amani Leo has so far attracted cautious optimism. "The formal concept of this... offensive [puts] a strong emphasis on [the] protection of civilians, common planning, and conditionality of MONUC support linked to respect of human rights by FARDC," Guillaume Lacaille, a senior analyst for Central Africa with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN.
According to MONUC, the operation will give priority to civilian protection, especially of children and women, holding territory liberated from armed groups and helping to restore state authority.
"Protection of civilians has been the central concern in our planning," MONUC commander Lt General Babacar Gaye told the Security Council in January. A zero tolerance policy on human rights violations will be enforced.
"Whether Amani Leo will succeed is something one should wait to see," said Nelson Alusala, senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. DRC and Rwanda would, however, want to fast-track it ahead of possible MONUC cuts, and Congolese and Rwandan elections in 2011.
"The FDLR have two options - go back voluntarily or force their way back because Rwanda cannot negotiate with them," a security source in Goma told IRIN. "These were regular soldiers and they remain capable of destabilizing parts of the Kivu region."
The conflict in the Kivus is fuelled by vast natural resources in the region, including gold. The main warring parties, according to Global Witness, control much of the lucrative mineral trade.
"Natural resources must be recognized not only as part of the problem but also as an essential part of the solution," the group's Mike Davis wrote in a recent report.
"Numerous armed groups in DRC thrive on unregulated trade in minerals," Alusala said. "Minerals are also exchanged for weapons, and that sustains the conflict."
The Bonn International Centre for Conversion argues that those interested in the DRC's natural resources still "possess a spoiling potential". These include influential former fighters who are now part of informal power and trading networks.