Northeastern DR Congo is a powder keg
By: Benjamin Viénot, Country Director for Action Contre la Faim, Maureen Philippon, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Malik Allauona, Country Director for Save the Children
Hunger, children out of school, conflict over land, displacement, violence against civilians, no access to basic services: entangled in a dire humanitarian situation, Ituri province in DR Congo is a powder keg. We have looked away for way too long.
When reports came out late last year about more than hundred children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Ituri province that had been killed or maimed in just a few months, the world briefly looked up – and then carried on.
Yet for people in Ituri, this violence continues to impact their everyday life deeply.
“They killed women, men, and children. We were hiding inside when the door was locked and the house was set on fire. I am the only one who survived”, a 17 year-old girl told us, while looking at what’s left of the burned houses in her village in Ituri.
In a way, the girl embodies hundreds of thousands of people in Ituri – uprooted from their daily life, confronted with death and destruction, without enough to eat, surviving on life-saving support.
They have been standing in the midst of one of the worst but also most neglected crises in the world. A staggered crisis in which communal violence and fighting between other armed actors forced at least 627,000 people from their homes in the first half of 2020 alone – gravely hampering their access to health care, security, food.
In some parts of Ituri, 6,5 percent of all children under five are severely acute malnourished, meaning one in 15 children under five have a very high risk of dying. The highest numbers are among children who have been displaced by the violence – conflict is one of the drivers of hunger. Projections predict that half of the Ituri population will face acute food insecurity in 2021, pushing a province the size of Ireland into a deep hunger crisis, with 2.4 million people in dire need of support.
At least 453 civilians have been killed in Ituri since March 2020, according to the UN – and the violence struck a fatal blow to many children’s education as well. Some 160 schools were damaged and looted, pushing 80,000 children out of school. In addition to that, at least 18 health facilities were destroyed last year, leaving children and their families without access to health care.
Peace is key for healing
Although peace talks started in last August, Ituri is still far from safe. After a few weeks of relative calm, recent attacks make us fear the worst. Ituri is a powder keg, and the slightest spark can plunge the region back into a spiral of infernal violence.
It is key to break the cycle of violence, protect civilians, and allow hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return home and pick up their lives again.
A strong dialogue between all relevant communities and parties to the conflict is needed to resolve long-lasting disputes over land rights and other issues. All channels to reach long-lasting peaceful agreement must be explored. Children, men and women from Ituri have suffered for too long.
Need for support
The international community, with its eager eye on DRC when it comes to its national resources, needs to encourage initiatives which must include all relevant parties and communities to build peace and bring solution to deeply rooted grievances.
At the same time donor countries need to increase funding for assistance to ease the suffering of people in Ituri, addressing their urgent and structural needs. It is hard to build a solid peace on an empty stomach.
Lastly, we urge all parties to the conflict to end attacks on civilians and protected facilities, and provide aid workers unhindered access to people in need. Early last year, some 70 percent of the aid workers had to suspend their work because of violence, and the situation is just too dire for that to happen again, with children dying of hunger and people being in urgent need of food, clean water and health services.
There is not time to wait, we need to act now.
Save the Children began working in Ituri in 2005, implementing both development and emergency projects, in areas where no or very few other actors are intervening due to security and logistic complexities. Save the Children has notably gained acceptance in hard-to-reach areas, for example by working equally with tribes in conflict. Currently, with support from Global Affairs Canada, Save the Children is reaching over 46,000 conflict-affected people in Ituri with emergency nutrition and protection services, including for child and adult survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.