Goma: The real disaster under the volcano

 Christian Aid issued this report today: The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the eastern Congo on January 17 brought a brief burst of international attention to this corner of the world. The eruption devastated the commercial heart of Goma and made thousands homeless. But the volcano was just latest in a long line of catastrophes to hit the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo is embroiled in a war which is the equivalent of daily volcanic eruptions, and which is having unimaginable economic and social consequences. Thousands of people fled in a blind panic on the night of 17 January. Most fled across the Rwandan border, since their path to the town of Sake and the north was blocked by the lava flow. Rwanda was not their preferred destination; since 1998 North Kivu has been occupied by the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD). After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Gomans hosted close to a million Rwandan refugees; they have first-hand knowledge of refugee camps and did not want to be placed in refugee camps in Rwanda. Memories are still fresh of the cholera epidemic which broke out in the Goma camps in 1994, resulting in the deaths of half of the 50,000 cases. Three nights later most had returned to Goma, preferring the unpredictability of home to the poorly prepared camps in Rwanda. The natural resilience of the Congolese was immediately apparent; food brought in from the unaffected areas was being sold in the market, partially destroyed buildings were being salvaged for new buildings and piles of volcanic dust were being made into bricks. This resourcefulness was born out of necessity. Thirty years of neglect under the regime of Sese Seko Mobutu, who renamed the country Zaire and gave birth to the term 'kleptocracy' - rule by thieves, have left the country in a virtual state of collapse. The end of the cold war and the 1994 Rwanda genocide prompted the successful rebellion by Laurent Kabila against Mobutu. He was installed as president in 1997 and the country reverted to its former name with the 'Democratic Republic' tag to distinguish it from its northern neighbour, the Republic of the Congo. However a rift soon developed between President Kabila and his former allies which sparked a new rebellion in the east. Today the east remains under the control of Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels. This territorial division has left the people in eastern Congo at the mercy of armed groups which murder, rape, pillage, steal crops and have forced the displacement of millions of people. One of the biggest problems in making sure aid reached all those affected in Goma is the number of displaced people who do not show up on official registers. The 1999 Lusaka peace accord was supposed to provide a framework for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Congolese soil. In practice, the crucial steps towards a peaceful resolution have not been taken. In addition, the illegal exploitation of the Congo's immense natural resources of coltan, diamonds and timber have made the occupying armies reluctant to leave. An international presence is necessary. Rwanda needs international security guarantees along its borders before withdrawing its troops while the Kinshasa government must withdraw its support from various anti-Rwanda groups. A peace settlement in the Congo would have ramifications far beyond its borders. All the countries surrounding it are either involved in the conflict or affected by it, and this is hampering their economic development. Christian Aid supports many local organisations in the Congo which are involved in peace building, food security and monitoring human rights. These grassroots groups must be part of the process to find a lasting peace in the region. They are an essential component of external peace processes. But until the political will is found, both inside and outside the Congo, to fully implement the Lusaka Peace Accords, it will be up to the humanitarian community and the Congolese people to deal with the crisis in the region.

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