September 14, 2010


The scale of internal displacement in eastern Congo, and the disruption and dislocation it causes to people’s lives, is colossal. As of April 2010 at least 1.8 million people were displaced—the fourth largest internal displacement in the world—1.4 million of whom were in the volatile provinces of North and South Kivu bordering Rwanda. As people have fled, they have lost possessions, homes, land, and livelihoods; as well as family, friends, neighbors, and the economic and social support associated with them. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been the victims of deliberate attacks perpetrated by virtually all warring factions in the area—government forces and armed groups alike. Moreoever, IDPs are often among the civilians most vulnerable to further abuse, hunger, and disease, yet they have limited access to services such as health care and education. Many have been displaced two or three times, sometimes more. For some, the years since 1993 can be characterized as being “always on the run.”

This report mainly focuses on the displacement from late 2008 through mid-2010 and especially the first half of 2009. At least 1.2 million IDPs were forced to flee their homes during three successive military operations that began in January 2009; others had fled during earlier waves of displacement. At the same time, over 1.1 million others returned—or tried to return—to their homes between January 2009 and March 2010. Despite these attempts, over 1.4 million people remained displaced in North and South Kivu by April 2010.

This report does not provide a comprehensive history of displacement. Rather, focusing on North and South Kivu, it documents how warring parties have abused IDPs in all phases of displacement: during the attacks that uprooted them, following displacement, and after authorities decided it was time they return home. It outlines the causes of dislocation, including punishment for suspected collaboration with enemy groups and retaliation for military losses, and details the search for refuge that many IDPs undertake in forests, official camps, spontaneous sites, and host families—which are themselves often stretched to capacity. Throughout, IDPs face assault, robbery, forced labor, and rape: for example, witnesses told Human Rights Watch of women being raped in their own houses and in forests; of villagers—including children as young as six—being killed with machetes and hoes and burned to death when soldiers torched houses; and of civilians being beaten and killed for refusing to carry soldiers’ belongings.

Many IDPs try to stay as close as possible to their homes and farms so they can continue to work the land, gather food, and reassert ownership of their property if the situation improves. This report examines the dangerous return trips that many IDPs make to look for food or tend their fields and the barriers that exist to their more permanent return, including the seizure or destruction of their land by armed groups or locals. It also highlights two particular instances when authorities—the government and now-allied CNDP—were so interested in clearing IDPs from camps for political reasons that they compromised the safety of at least some of the tens of thousands of people whose homes, fields, and villages had been appropriated by locals or armed groups or whose return home otherwise remained perilous. Finally, the report outlines the official steps that have been taken to protect IDPs in Eastern Congo, including a recent initiative to combine existing displacement-focused and return-focused programs with a new emergency response strategy that instead focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable.

It notes that while the new response strategy is theoretically more flexible and adapted to the needs of eastern Congo, more assistance needs to reach the estimated one million IDPs living, as of March 2010, with host families throughout North and South Kivu. Until it does, IDPs will continue to return to insecure home areas to find food; live in dire conditions in their places of displacement; and take other risks, including fleeing their villages at the last possible moment.

Political and Military Context

The newest phase of displacement in eastern Congo began in late 2008, coinciding with a dramatic regional shift in alliances.

In December 2008 the previously antagonistic neighboring countries of Rwanda and Congo announced a joint military operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Les Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a predominantly Rwandan Hutu armed group operating in eastern DRC, and its allies. Shortly after, the Rwandan-backed Congolese-Tutsi armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP), announced its integration into the Congolese army, following the arrest of the group’s leader, Laurent Nkunda, in Rwanda. Other smaller rebel groups quickly followed suit. New CNDP leader Bosco Ntaganda, wanted on an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC), was made a general and the de factodeputy commander of the Congolese army’s military operations in the east. This heralded a series of three military operations pitting the Congolese army against the FDLR: the first, in conjunction with the Rwandese, starting in January 2009; the second, starting in March 2009, together with the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Congo (MONUC); and the third, and most recent, also backed by UN peacekeepers, starting in January 2010, was ongoing at time of writing.

Government and rebel forces carried out widespread and vicious attacks on civilians during these operations, triggering renewed and massive displacement. In December 2009, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 1,400 civilians were killed between January and September 2009 and over 7,000 women and girls raped—numbers that no doubt represent only a fraction of the actual total. Government forces and FDLR also abducted and pressed thousands of civilians into forced labor, including carrying weapons and supplies, as they moved about. Since January 2010, following a new round of military operations against the FDLR, civilians in many parts of North and South Kivu continue to endure forced labor, arbitrary arrests, illegal taxation, looting, sexual violence, and excessive restrictions on movement.

Improved Security since 2009?

Although military operations continue, Congolese government officials and UN planners have begun to plan and implement stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction programs. The government is ultimately responsible for providing protection for its citizens, including those who are internally displaced. It has stated repeatedly that the security situation in eastern Congo has vastly improved and it wishes to see displaced populations return home. Officials have incorporated displacement concerns in the rebuilding program for eastern Congo, the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Areas Emerging from Armed Conflict (STAREC), to be jointly implemented by the government, the UN, and international donors.

The Congolese government’s view that civilian protection in eastern Congo is much improved has been challenged by Congolese civil society groups, national and provincial parliamentarians, and human rights and humanitarian groups. For example, in 2010 South Kivu members of Congo’s National Assembly wrote a letter of protest to the prime minister, Adolphe Muzito, saying, “We find it sadistic and irresponsible that your government declares without embarrassment that there is peace throughout [Congo] with only a few residual pockets of resistance in our province…. In nearly all territories [of South Kivu] insecurity continues.” The authors questioned whether the prime minister “lives in the same country as us” and called for UN peacekeepers to stay until the security situation improved.

One challenge in building a professional army and enhancing security for Congo’s IDPs and other citizens is integrating the numerous armed groups that previously fought the government and repeatedly targeted civilians. For example, after the CNDP agreed to integrate with the army, it was effectively allowed to maintain a parallel chain of command and to retain considerable control over areas it occupied. CNDP officers were awarded senior ranks in the army and the CNDP was given a leading role in the joint Congolese-Rwandan military operation—Umoja Wetu (“Our Unity” in Kiswahili) — launched against the FDLR in January 2009. The operation was marred by serious abuses against civilians by all sides, prompting renewed internal displacement.

In February 2009 Rwandan army soldiers officially withdrew from eastern Congo after five weeks of military operations. The FDLR militias had been forced from some of their military bases in North Kivu province and some had been disarmed, but they had not been defeated.

In March 2009 the Congolese army supported by MONUC peacekeepers launched a second military campaign in North and South Kivu against the FDLR. Operation Kimia II (“Quiet” in Kiswahili) produced a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe as tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes, sometimes for displacement camps around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province. By September 2009 Congolese authorities deemed that some areas of North Kivu, where it claimed to have removed the FDLR militia, were safe for the population to return. Five official IDP camps around Goma, housing some 60,000 IDPs, were closed and emptied almost overnight in what UN officials, diplomats, and others welcomed as a “spontaneous return.”

The reality was more complex. IDPs were put under official pressure to leave as the authorities sought to demonstrate that the Kimia II had created security conditions conducive to return—for both IDPs and Congolese refugees who had been in Rwanda since 1996. As people were leaving, armed police and bandits of youth raided the camps, looting belongings left behind, destroying latrines and other camp structures, and wounding numerous IDPs who had not yet packed up and left. It remains unclear how many IDPs actually returned home and were able to stay or instead joined the vast majority of their displaced compatriots staying with host families or in informal IDP settlements.

In late December 2009 Kimia II was suspended amid criticism of its disastrous humanitarian and human rights consequences. It was followed in January 201o by Amani Leo (“Peace Today” in Kiswahili), a MONUC-supported military operation. Unlike Kimia II, this aimed to target FDLR command bases, rather than broad-based operations. MONUC officials attempted to ensure that the Congolese army units it backed respected international humanitarian law and were not commanded by known human rights abusers. Still, many of the most abusive military officers continue to play important roles in eastern Congo, even if they are not directly involved in operations supported by UN peacekeepers. At least 115,000 more people fled their homes in the first three months of 2010 due to military operations and insecurity in the Kivus.

Protecting and Assisting the Displaced

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement set out rights and guarantees relevant to protecting and assisting IDPs during displacement, return, resettlement, and reintegration.

However, Congolese authorities have often proved unable, or unwilling, to follow these principles and have a poor track record when it comes to protecting IDPs. Since January 2009 specifically, the often-abusive behavior of Congolese army units has seriously hindered the government and the army’s abilities to effectively protect the population. Moreover, in the absence of state institutions and resources to assist eastern Congo’s war-ravaged population, the government has often relied on UN agencies and international and national humanitarian organizations for humanitarian assistance. These include the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO)—previously known as MONUC—a 20,000-strong force with a strong UN Security Council mandate to protect civilians “under imminent threat of physical violence” and to “assist in the voluntary return of … internally displaced persons.”

Focused in eastern Congo, MONUSCO has developed some innovative ways to enhance civilian protection, such as the development of a civilian protection strategy and the deployment of Joint Protection Teams (JPTs) to mediate disputes between non-integrated armed groups and the Congolese army or local population and to separate children from armed groups. However, like other organizations, MONUSCO suffers financial, security, and logistical constraints of its own, especially given Congo’s vast size and the shifting alliances of numerous armed factions. Other initiatives to help IDPs have also faced difficulties. In early 2009 international donors and UN agencies agreed that IDPs and their host families should receive assistance if needed. However, it has proved hard to ensure aid reaches most people in this situation. As a result, the challenge of protecting citizens remains immense.

Until September 2009 much assistance was channeled to UN agencies and NGOs working in the seven official IDP camps in Goma and the four official camps in Masisi. Some also went to agencies working with the estimated 135,000 IDPs living (as of late January 2010) in spontaneous sites. With five of the seven official camps in Goma now closed, aid is set to increase to IDPs in spontaneous sites; UNHCR’s camp management strategy has formalized management of and assistance to such locations. Keen to see the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo shrink in size and refocus on reconstruction, stabilization, and peace building, Congolese government officials, together with UN planners, have also begun to plan and implement stabilization and post-conflict reconstruction programs—even as military operations continue. This includes the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Areas Emerging from Armed Conflict (STAREC)—the rebuilding program for eastern Congo that the UN, government, and international donors are due to implement jointly.

Protecting civilians, including IDPs, must remain of paramount concern in the coming months, as the government seeks to emphasize stabilization and reconstruction. The government must take all necessary measures to ensure that its security forces help protect IDPs fleeing to safety and are not themselves part of the problem. The UN and donors need to be vigilant that MONUSCO’s protection role does not diminish over time in the absence of credible alternatives. Moreover, IDPs should only be encouraged to return when they can return voluntarily in safety and dignity. However, as long as ongoing security problems continue to drive civilians from their homes, it is crucial that UN agencies, NGOs, and donors ensure that emergency humanitarian assistance programs are prioritized and receive sufficient resources and that assistance programs in return areas do not contribute to pushing IDPs home before it is safe for them to go.