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Smiling faces, suffering people

March 7th, 2012

I have just visited an extraordinary market on a muddy hillside in South Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Thousands of men and women queued to buy everything from transistor radios to corrugated sheet roofing. The atmosphere was festive – I even danced! – and warm-hearted.

It was all the more remarkable to see smiling animated faces among people who have suffered so much. I met Munembwe Bupande, the 66-year-old headman of the village of Luyuyu, in Shabunda territory in South Kivu. On 30th December last year Luyuyu was attacked in the middle of the night by an armed group calling itself the FDLR, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda.

“In one night they killed 30 people, they raped 16 women and they wounded nine others with guns, clubs and knives,” he told me. “They took a knife to a pregnant woman and slit her open, killing her and her baby.”

Mr Bupande and thousands of others fled into the forest where they walked for a week, keeping constantly on the move for fear of further attacks. More than a hundred thousand people followed suit, following an upsurge in violence. Mr Bupande’s nine-year-old grandson was among the victims. “It was like an extermination, there is no other explanation for people to do those things to us – it was their habitual behaviour,” was all he could offer to help me understand how such brutality has come to haunt this rich, green land for so many years.

By current estimates there are 1.7 million people who have been forced to flee their homes – the so-called IDPs, internally displaced people. Insecurity is chronic in DRC, a state that is failing its people. Rival armed groups maraud across these steep-sided valleys continually. It had been planned for me to visit another area just a few kilometres away across a ridge, but renewed fighting had broken out there.

This year the European Commission will spend 59 million euros on humanitarian aid in the DRC, an increase over last year’s commitment but still not enough: I implore other donors to step up to the plate. It’s fashionable to talk of donor fatigue and there is a real risk that DRC becomes a forgotten crisis.

But I want to tell you, having seen it for myself, that our presence alone – the mere fact that as humanitarians we walk the paths and hillsides of this tragic land – is a symbol of protection to vulnerable people here.

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