The number of violent attacks directed by armed groups towards innocent and displaced civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has soared in recent weeks. The unstable and insecure situation many Congolese people face has forced mass movement, with over 5 million civilians uprooted from their homes. Armed groups are capitalizing on this fragmentation of communities by coordinating highly violent attacks on the forced migrants as they attempt to flee.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has recorded various attacks over the last 8 weeks where armed groups are specifically targeting displacement sites. These violent raids have predominantly occurred in Fizi and Mwenga territories in South Kivu province, in Djugu Territory in Ituri, and Msisi and Rutshuru territories of the North Kivu province. In these areas alone, the waves of terror have displaced over 1 million people since January of this year. Ethnic divisions and a struggle for control of land and resources help to propel much of this violence.
The scope of the violence and damage inflicted by these armed groups has been deeply disturbing. On June 17th, an ethnic Lendu-led militia stormed Loda, a village in the provincial capital of Ituri, claiming the lives of at least 6 victims. Each of these victims was an ethnic Hema. One raid in the Djugu Territory two weeks ago saw two men, one woman, and two children brutally beheaded with machetes whilst over 150 houses were set alight by the groups. In another incident on the 23rd June, a conflict between two separate armed groups in the town of Mweso, caused nearly 5,000 people to flee their homes in the North Kivu province. Moreover, the clandestine nature of the armed groups adds a further layer of complexity when approaching this crisis. A displacement site in South Kivu is regularly used by militants to hide from authorities – bringing the integrity of the site into question, despite the evident innocence of the civilians seeking shelter there.
Uganda has now offered some way of relief for the plight of these displaced Congolese civilians by opening up its borders to thousands of those seeking safety. This move, however, must be viewed in the context of the significant pressure exerted by a coalition of 39 international and refugee-led organisations across Africa, advocating for governments to reopen border to asylum seekers despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Dismad Nkunda, the Executive Director of Atrocities Watch Africa, underlined the importance of this open borders approach when tackling issues of forced displacement: “COVID-19 or no COVID-19, seeking asylum is the most important thing for someone fearing for their lives.”
Evidently, Uganda’s welcome decision is just one of many holistic steps required to halt this spiralling pattern of violence. The DRC’s military response has been consistently flawed and have (in certain instances) only inflamed divisions further. In fact, a Congolese military operation back in March caused the death of Justin Ngudjolo, the leader of the Lendu-led Cooperative for the Development of Congo. This act has only caused the group to split into more deadly and volatile factions. Senior Congolese military officials also continue to be linked to illegal gold smuggling networks in the DRC and beyond.
And so the DRC government must instead address its country’s sharply entrenched divisions and inequalities by strengthening its state institutions, and by overseeing the creation of independent bodies that may investigate the vast number of abuses committed towards innocent and terrified civilians. Justice must be served not by further indiscriminate violence but instead through a legitimate judicial process. Meanwhile, nearby countries like Burundi and Ethiopia must follow Uganda’s lead and offer asylum to those Congolese civilians who find themselves living uprooted, vulnerable, and transient lives.