Congo gripped by fear as thousands flee ‘bone-chilling’ violence


The UN refugee agency has become the latest aid organisation to voice its alarm over rising violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis, almost 7,000 people have crossed to neighbouring Burundi and 1,200 into Tanzania in the past week, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, The Guardian reports.

“Refugees we have spoken to say they fled forced recruitment, direct violence and other abuses by armed groups. Others say they fled in anticipation of military operations and out of fear,” said spokesperson Babar Baloch.

Earlier this week, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation described “alarming food insecurity” in the country, sparked by an extension of conflict into areas previously considered stable, such as the provinces of Kasai and Tanganyika.

Last month, Jean-Philippe Chauzy, DRC’s chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said the humanitarian crisis in DRC was at “breaking point” amid a massive escalation of inter-ethnic conflict and widespread insecurity.

Political violence and government repression intensified in 2016 as President Joseph Kabila clung to power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended on December 19, 2016, despite widespread opposition and international condemnation. As authorities deliberately stalled plans to organize elections, government officials and security forces systematically sought to silence, repress, and intimidate the growing coalition of voices calling for credible, timely elections.

After weeks of intense negotiations, participants at talks mediated by the Catholic Church concluded an agreement on New Year’s Eve. The deal, signed by representatives of Kabila’s ruling coalition, the political opposition, and civil society, includes a clear commitment that presidential elections will be held before the end of 2017, that Kabila will not seek a third term, and that there will be no referendum nor changes to the constitution. However, the signatories had not agreed on a detailed calendar or plan for implementing the deal, Kabila himself had not signed the agreement, and it was not clear whether measures would be taken to end the climate of repression.

In eastern Congo, the security situation remained volatile as numerous armed groups, and in some cases government security forces, viciously attacked civilians.

Freedom of Expression and Peaceful Assembly

Government officials and security forces repeatedly banned opposition demonstrations, fired teargas and live bullets at peaceful protesters, shut media outlets, and prevented opposition leaders from moving freely.

More than 100 activists and opposition leaders or supporters were arbitrarily arrested between January and December 2016, and held for at least 48 hours. Some were held incommunicado for weeks or months and badly mistreated, while others were put on trial on trumped-up charges. At time of writing, at least 35 activists and political prisoners remained in detention.

Nine youth activists and at least 30 political opposition supporters were arrested in Kinshasa and Goma on or around February 16 in connection with a “ville morte,” or general strike, to protest delays in organizing presidential elections.


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