Going back to Goma

Conflict, Humanitarian

We recently published our latest annual protection report from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here Edmund Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on humanitarian affairs, sets the scene from his recent trip to eastern Congo, and reflects on what has changed in the last five years.


The last time I sat on the edge of Lake Kivu was in January 2010. Back then, there was one topic on the lips of everyone I spoke to. It was a military offensive called Amani Leo which the Congolese army (the FARDC) and UN hoped would finally defeat the FDLR group that had grown out of Rwanda’s genocidaire a decade and a half before. 

For every fighter disarmed, one civilian was killed, seven were raped, and 900 were forced from their homes.It didn’t go to plan. Reprisals were vicious. Most FDLR fighters simply melted into the forest. As Oxfam calculated at the time, for every fighter disarmed, one civilian was killed, seven were raped, and 900 were forced from their homes

So what’s happening now? That’s right. Fast-forward five years and the FDLR failed to meet a 2 January deadline to surrender. So this February the FARDC began to take on the FDLR in a new offensive again. 

Will it work? Will it save more civilians than it will harm? The lesson from history seems to be that it’s never as straightforward as you think. (I’m British. I do understatement.)

Five years on, Goma still feels like a city ‘behind the lines’ of a war, even though the provinces of North and South Kivu around it include areas of relative calm, as well as others of violence and displacement. Even in the city, conflict does not feel far away. In 2010, I stayed in a hotel that will remain nameless. I didn’t go back this time, because on the last occasion colleagues were there it was full of armed rebels. 

Louise holds a jerry-can full of clean water in Buporo camp, Eastern Congo. Louise lives next to a tap-stand provided by Oxfam. It is one of four tap-stands in Buporo camp, which supply close to 4000 people with clean water. Credit: Oxfam/Eleanor FarmerToday, UN peacekeepers and Congolese police are everywhere on the streets – the police driving around in pick-ups mounted with machine guns, bullet belts draped over their bodies, shades over their eyes, more
reminiscent of a war zone than the major city that Goma is. 

But at least in Goma, the police are very present. That’s not true in many parts of eastern Congo, as our new report, Secure Insecurity shows clearly. At the end of last year, Oxfam researchers went around sixteen villages in four different territories, to hear what the DRC state really does on the ground. 

They heard some stories of honest officials trying to do a good job. But more often, they heard stories of the state just ‘not being there’ – in the form of police, soldiers or officials providing anything that looked like a service. Or when it was – offering no help or protection without a payment rather aptly called un corruption

They heard some stories of honest officials trying to do a good job. But more often, they heard stories of the state just ‘not being there’

Almost any research in eastern Congo of course needs a strong caveat; it’s so enormous and varied that you can find evidence for any narrative you want. I felt that five years ago when visiting Oxfam’s long-term programme that supports a network of Community Protection Committees to identify the main threats they face, how to mitigate them, and try to influence local authorities to do so. 

Driving over from Rwanda this year, I read reports flitting confusingly between calling the situation ‘conflict’ and ‘post-conflict’, and you can see why. More than 250 people were massacred further north of Goma, in Beni at the end of last year. But that doesn’t mean that such brutality is happening everywhere. Eastern Congo is a patchwork of power, in which the government and armed groups control different areas, overlapping, changing hands, so that there’s always somewhere to support
the comforting narrative of ‘stabilisation’ and cautious progress – and the more challenging one of continuing conflict and crisis.

In truth, little research exists that reflects the whole of eastern Congo. Perhaps only the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s survey of 5,000 people in late 2013 can even claim to. According to that, only 57% of people believe the government works to improve their security, and 77% see the UN’s contribution to security as ‘weak’ or ‘non-existent’.

That disillusionment with the UN was one of the things that drove the UN Security Council and SADC (Southern Africa’s regional body) to set up a hard-hitting ‘Intervention Brigade’ in 2013 with troops from Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa. Has it worked? Well, to a limited extent, yes, though it must do much more to respond to civilians’ appeals for protection. Those look like some of the provisional conclusions from some more new research with communities, which CAFOD, Oxfam and others will publish in the coming weeks too. Please look out for that on
this site.

Conflict? Post-conflict? What is eastern DRC really like? ‘Little peace’ was the pithy description I heard from one villager near the town of Minova. That seemed to sum up the ambiguity, vulnerability but also – I’d like to think – hope, very well.
Will that ‘little peace’ grow in 2015? 

Or will more civilians be forced to flee their homes – as the FARDC take on the FDLR, and, as one report after another shows, local communities’ faith in both the state’s and the UN’s ability to protect them remains painfully limited?

Read more

Photos:
Header image – July 2012, thousands of people seeking refuge in Kibati, on the outskirts of Goma. Credit: Oxfam
Secondary image – Louise holds a jerry-can full of clean water in Buporo camp, Eastern Congo. Louise lives next to a tap-stand provided by Oxfam. It is one of four tap-stands in Buporo camp, which supply close to 4000 people with clean water. Credit: Oxfam/Eleanor Farmer

Author: Ed Cairns
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.