Aimée and Marie* met shortly after fleeing an attack on their village in the Ituri province in the eastern part of DR Congo in April 2021. The two families walked for five days to reach the city of Oicha, where they are now trying to start a new life with support from the Danish Refugee Council.
Marie was able to find a shelter for both families and start farming, but their needs go beyond physical safety and food security. Aimée witnessed the cruel murder of her husband during the attack on their village and is still in shock and in need of psychosocial support, leaving Marie to support both their families.
Since October 2020, attacks against civilians have evolved from economic predation to direct targeting. This includes attacks from several sub-groups of the so-called Cooperative for Development of the Congo, CODECO, against the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, FARDC, and villages, provoking the emergence of self-defence groups.
The violence and cruelty of the attacks – some of which were recorded to include mutilation, torture, and rape – is such that rumours alone are enough to trigger displacement, deter returns and cause tensions between ethnic communities.
Martine Villeneuve, Country Director for DR Congo.
385 security incidents were recorded between January and April 2021, and 115 civilians killed between the end of March and the beginning of May. During the night of 30 May 2021, over 60 civilians – including 30 displaced – were killed and 25 abducted in southern Irumu. What turned out to be one of the deadliest attacks in recent years also triggered the displacement of 5,800 people from displacement sites.
The area hosts large numbers of IDPs, many of whom have been attacked and forced to flee multiple times. 1.7 million people are currently displaced in Ituri, while some 5 million people are displaced in DR Congo as a whole – making it one of the world’s most severe humanitarian crises.
“We are deeply concerned about the deterioration of the security situation in Ituri and its impact on civilian populations. Without appropriate measures, the situation has the potential to worsen,” warns Martine Villeneuve, DRC’s Country Director for DR Congo.
“We need the international community to step up to support the response and to call on all parties to protect civilians and to respect international humanitarian law and human rights.”
Just like Aimée and Marie, thousands of people in the area are often displaced multiple times. This comes at a high cost as they are regularly separated from family members and must leave everything behind. Unfortunately, the very reason they flee is also the reason aid workers cannot access some of the high-needs areas.
As the geographical reach of armed groups is expanding, insecurity also prevents humanitarian actors from accessing people of concern. This includes the lack of access due to the presence of armed groups as well as targeted attacks. NGO’s offices and a hospital in Boga supported by MSF have been directly targeted, leaving thousands of people without access to healthcare and other essential services.
Without assistance, displaced populations are exposed to heightened protection risks.
When families are forced into displacement, women and children are the most vulnerable. While Aimée and Marie’s children were able to enrol back in school, many others see their education disrupted as they flee, and schools are destroyed or used as shelter by displaced communities.
In addition to the obvious consequence on their education, out-of-school children are exposed to violence, exploitation, and abuse, making it essential for organisations like DRC to strengthen community-based protection mechanisms, provide psychosocial support and support schools.
Whether they live with host families or in collective sites, women and girls are at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence as well as psychological and emotional abuse from parties to the conflict but also from civilians taking advantage of the atmosphere of lawlessness.
Everyday tasks, such as fetching water or going to the bathroom, put women and girls at risk of violence. They can also be pushed to resort to survival sex as a negative coping mechanism to make ends meet.
Despite its fertile land, DR Congo is now “home to the highest number of people in the world who are in need of food security assistance” according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). One in three people in the country are now affected by food insecurity.
This is a concerning increase and a direct consequence of the lack of access to crops.
Displacement, by its very definition, takes people away from their homes, fields, and property. Few displaced can build a temporary shelter and start farming as Aimée and Marie could – most of them have to rely on host families, who often only have very limited space to share.
Even with support to build from humanitarian actors, the lack of space to build and farm pushes people to return daily or more permanently to their area of origin, running the risk of facing new attacks by armed groups.
“We fear that the level of food insecurity may continue to increase due to the violence. The current level of violence negatively impacts food security by preventing people from accessing their crops,” says Martine Villeneuve.
* Names have been changed to protect their identity and safety.
The Danish Refugee Council is present in the Haut Uélé, Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DR Congo, where it responds to emergencies and seeks to enhance the protective environment around populations affected by displacement with the support of ECHO, BHA and the United Nations. These interventions focus on protection, water, hygiene and sanitation, shelter and non-food items programming, livelihoods, education in emergencies and peacebuilding.
In the first six months of 2020 alone, nine massacres were recorded in the areas of Djugu and Mahagi in DR Congo's Ituri province. The atrocities were accompanied by continuous attacks, ambushes, and lootings carried out by the numerous armed groups operating in the area. With the technical and financial support of EU Humanitarian Aid, DRC was able to help communities develop coping strategies and start rebuilding their lives.