February 23, 2006

Congolese flee rape, murder onto floating islands

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Thousands of civilians have taken
refuge on floating islands in the lakes of Congo's Katanga
province to escape rape and murder by government and militia
fighters, a top U.N. humanitarian official said on Thursday.

Some 120,000 people have fled their homes in the remote
Mitwaba area, where hundreds of women have been raped during
fighting between the army and former pro-government militiamen
that U.N. peacekeepers are unable to control, he added.

Congo is staggering toward elections, due later this year,
but fighting continues in Katanga and elsewhere in the lawless
east, where minerals are plentiful and gunmen continue to roam,
nearly three years after the war was officially declared over.

Daniel Augstburger, the head of the U.N.'s Office for the
Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Congo, said many
people had taken refuge on islands formed by clumps of papyrus
plants floating on lakes in Katanga's Upemba National Park.

"In and around Upemba there are thousands of people living
on floating islands because it is the only place they feel
safe," he said. "There is systematic sexual violence. Hundreds
of women have been treated for rape."

He said it was difficult to know exactly how many rapes
there had been as many women were afraid to come forward.

Local militias in the southern mining province of Katanga
were originally armed by the government in Kinshasa to fight
against Rwandan-backed rebels during Congo's five year war.

Since the war officially ended in 2003, some of the gunmen,
rag-tag fighters known as Mai Mai who anoint themselves with
potions they believe make them invincible, have been integrated
into Congo's new army.

Others, however, have turned their guns on the population.

At the end of last year, government forces launched attacks
on the Mai Mai, vowing to put an end to their reign of terror
and allow elections to be held.


But, as with most units in Congo's army, which is supposed
to unite former government forces and rebels, the soldiers are
ill-disciplined, seldom paid and poorly fed.

"Both sides are living off the backs of the population --
there is total impunity. There are attacks, murders, mutilation
and pillaging," Augstburger said.

"There are now more than 120,000 who are displaced in
Mitwaba," an area 250 miles north of the Lubumbashi, the
capital of copper-rich Katanga.

Congo is home to some 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers, making it
the world body's largest peacekeeping mission. But they are
spread thinly across the vast country and just several hundred
have been deployed to Katanga, which is the size of France.

Humanitarian crises elsewhere in the Congo, where aid
workers say fighting and war-related hunger and disease kill
1,000 people a day, mean there are also only a handful of
organizations looking after Katanga's displaced.

"We are trying to get more humanitarian actors into
Katanga," Augstburger said. "Congo provides us with an enormous
list of crises. We can't be everywhere as we don't have
unlimited resources."

Due to the severity of the crisis, which is compounded by
drought in some parts of Katanga and the plundering by gunmen
of what little food stocks civilians had, the U.N. has begun
transporting food into Mitwaba by helicopter.

International organizations this month launched a $681
million appeal to help ease the humanitarian crisis in the
Congo, which has been called the deadliest since World War Two
and has killed an estimated 4 million people since 1998.