In the DRC, ballots did not bring peace

The people find themselves caught in an impossible situation, facing daily threats, pillages, beatings, killings and rape at the hands of marauding soldiers or organised troops from both factions.

Today the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is emerging from brutal conflict and war that caused unspeakable suffering to millions of its people for years. Democratically elected officials are now in place and vast areas of the country are experiencing relative tranquility. Yet, recalcitrant pockets of violence continue to affect those living in the east of the country.

In North Kivu, several confrontations between armed elements of the Forces Démocratiques de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) and troops loyal to Laurent Nkunda, now part of the national army, have resulted in the displacement of thousands of civilians. The people find themselves caught in an impossible situation, facing daily threats, pillages, beatings, killings and rape at the hands of marauding soldiers or organised troops from both factions. In response, the inhabitants of several villages in Masisi and Rutshuru territories have now fled to squalid camps.

"After armed men came repeatedly to our village and pillaged all our resources, we were left with no option but to leave," said an elderly, displaced man. "If you have nothing to give to them, your life becomes worthless in their eyes and they will kill you."

Many displaced individuals told MSF about months of suffering and angst. They reported spending nights hiding in the bush every time they felt that one of the groups would attack their villages. They continued to do this until the day arrived when the pressure became unbearable and they decided to leave their village and fields.

In Masisi territory, MSF provides medical assistance to those affected by the conflict. Displaced civilians have created two camps around the villages of Mweso and Kashuga, where over 7,000 people are now living under makeshift shelters unfit to protect them from the rain and cold common to this region. Despite the assistance provided by other organisations, basic needs such as food, drinkable water, sanitation and hygiene are not fully met.

"Food distribution was slow to come and many people were left with the impossible choice of having to sell the donated plastic sheeting that protected them from the rain in order to buy food," said an MSF nurse who works in the camps.

Due to the ongoing instability, the inhabitants have lost access to their fields and means of subsistence. While some of them have found poorly paying jobs in the village, the majority of them are now dependent on humanitarian assistance. While the displaced may feel more secure in the camps, they are not safe from soldiers and policemen looting their meagre possessions. MSF volunteers have witnessed soldiers taking food during a distribution that was intended to assist the displaced.

In addition to their daily struggle to survive, the displaced families have to cope with atrocious memories about the violence they have endured. Women and men have seen relatives and neighbours beaten and killed in front of their eyes. In just the last few months, dozens of women have been raped in the region. They all tell a similar story.

"I was walking to my fields when a group of armed men in uniform grabbed me and forced me into the bush. After beating me and threatening to kill me, they took turns abusing me. Now I am afraid of armed men," said one rape survivor, a 20 year old mother of two.

MSF provides these women with medical treatment in order to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. It also provides mental health counselling. Yet the psychological trauma and social stigmatisation will continue to affect them for much longer.

Stability has yet to come to these inhabitants of eastern DRC. Despite the national elections held seven months ago, their daily lives continue to be marked by a succession of threats, violence, deprivation and suffering. Today, thousands of civilians continue to suffer at the hands of the warring parties in this part of the DRC.