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Communities in east Congo not any safer despite M23 defeat

People living in North and South Kivu are still facing daily threats, extortion and violence at the hands of armed groups and government forces, despite the defeat two months ago of the rebel M23 militia, according to worldwide development organization Oxfam.

A new Oxfam report, In the Balance, reveals that large swathes of the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu remain under the control of various armed groups, many that have expanded into security vacuums left when the Congolese armed forces turned their attention to the M23. Military operations against armed groups run the risk of increasing the violence and abuse against civilians, particularly in remote areas.

"We are balanced in the middle," one man in Uvira, South Kivu, told Oxfam. His name has been withheld for security reasons. "I am just worried that things will get worse because they want to fight again. But who will be the victims? Ordinary people."

Communities facing extortion

Communities across eastern Congo are affected by violence including rape, beatings and murder – often accompanied by displacement, illegal taxation and looting. These patterns of abuse open up opportunities for armed groups or state authorities to squeeze communities for profit through illegal levies, arbitrary fines and other illegal practices. In some areas, this extortion has been institutionalized, with receipts even provided for illegal levies.

Some cause for hope

However, Oxfam’s evidence from a survey of 1,800 individuals does highlight some positive recent developments too. Several communities have created ‘security councils’ to bring together local leaders and state authorities, along with MONUSCO (the UN stabilisation mission in DRC) to find ways to reduce the violence and abuse. In Rutshuru and Nyiragongo territories in North Kivu, which were previously held by M23, some people say that their security had significantly improved and access to markets and fields was easier because they were no longer forced to pay taxes at barriers in and out of urban areas.

“The M23 were here for one year. Since they left, people may sell freely again, go to the market, they are now free to work. No one disturbs us, and FARDC protect us,” one village official in Nyiragongo told Oxfam.

There are also some indications that there is political will in the Congolese government to avoid past mistakes. M23 members accused of war crimes have not been given a blanket amnesty and changes in the command of the army have led to improved troop behavior in recent operations. Few abuses have been reported.

Armed groups still operating

However, military operations are still ongoing against various armed groups across the Kivus. In more remote areas of North and South Kivu, communities told Oxfam that illegal taxes increased in November and December 2013, in the lead-up to potential military operations against them by the UN peacekeeping troops in joint operations with the Congolese army.

“Protecting civilians from violence has to be at the forefront of operations,” said Oxfam country director Vincent Koch. “But this relentless extortion by armed groups must also be addressed. It makes it almost impossible for people to live their lives, to feed their families. The vulnerability exposed in this survey is quite shocking.”

Protection for the most vulnerable

This year’s protection survey heard that communities continue to experience violence because often the state does not protect them. One focus group described how the members of the army referred to them as matope, the Swahili word for mud. This, they explained, is indicative of army attitudes towards the community that they see as easy to manipulate and trample upon.

Recent developments such as the end of the M23 and increased regional cooperation offer a window of opportunity for peace in eastern Congo. But an end to insecurity in the region is far from an inevitable outcome. Communities’ vulnerability is unlikely to change without concerted efforts by the state to protect its citizens from violence. These efforts need to include a strong and effective state presence beyond urban areas, a committed process of reform of the security sector, starting with DDR, as well as government initiatives to include community participation in the decisions which will affect them.

“This is a critical time in the Kivus, with some signs that the security situation is already deteriorating amidst further military operations,” said Koch. “We have to act now to protect communities from violence and extortion. The Congolese government, the United Nations and the international community must listen and respond to the people who have been caught up in this vicious cycle of exploitation and abuse.”

ENDS

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