by VR Sreeraman on  August 24, 2009 at 5:44 PM General Health News
 Suspicion Undermines DR Congo Relief Workers
All too often, as his small humanitarian relief group tries to help victims of conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, Desire Kapuya feels stuck between a rock and a hard place.

"Each side accuses us of being spies," said Kapuya, a Kinshasa-area lawyer in his forties who is also coordinator of the Congolese Group for Training and Development (RECOED).

"The militia suspect us of being government agents, and the government accuses us of being spies for Westerners," he said of the conflict in which government forces have been fighting Ugandan and Rwandan rebels for several years, mainly in the northeast.

"We're working between two fires."

With 30 or so members, his non-governmental organisation identifies vulnerable people -- notably women and children caught up in the warfare -- and steers them towards international aid groups for help.

It works out of Ituri, in Orientale province, the northeast corner of Congo -- one of the most unstable parts of the country, where several armed groups have been active for a decade.

Working under a blanket of suspicion "does not make our task easy, because we are obliged to work clandestinely in some areas, especially those areas in which there is great insecurity," Kapuya said.

"If you're suddenly found to be gathering information from local people, you risk getting shot," he added. "The slightest suspicion ... and anything can happen. You need a lot of willpower to go into those areas."

"What's more, there's the fact that you cannot tell a militia fighter from a mere villager. They have melted into the population and it can happen that you're unknowingly riding a taxi scooter driven by a militiaman."

In addition, humanitarians can be mistaken for highway robbers loaded with booty: "When they turn up with food or medicine, militiamen pounce on them and then resell the goods, to the detriment of the population."

In eastern Nord-Kivu province where the Congolese army has been striving for six months to repatriate up to 6,000 Rwandan Hutu rebels -- some operating there since the aftermath of Rwanda's 1994 genocide -- near-constant attacks on aid workers "are part of the dangers of the business," said Norbert Kubuya, executive secretary of the Regional Council of Development NGOs.

On July 15, a 27-year-old Congolese working for French charity Caritas-France was shot and killed in what remain unclear circumstances, after he was stopped by two men in military uniforms.

Three days later, Italian missionary Giovanni Puimatti, 71, and several friends were assaulted and robbed on a road in the same area. Three Congolese soldiers were later arrested.

"Humanitarian workers must be protected by the public authorities," Kubuya said. "Sadly, that is not now the case."

"Two months ago in Rutshuru (40 kilometres or 25 miles north of Nord-Kivu's capital Goma), a humanitarian worker was killed in a shoot-out, and we don't know if it was premeditated or not," he recalled.

According to Kubuya, it sometimes happens that relief workers negotiate with armed groups in order to get access to high-risk areas.

On her recent African tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Goma to call attention to the humanitarian plight of people in the region, notably an epidemic of sexual violence against women.

In the whole of eastern DR Congo, the number of people displaced by the fighting has reached over 1.8 million, according to the UN refugee agency.

Source: AFP

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