Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF/Doctors without Borders) is accusing the military of the Democratic Republic of Congo of firing on civilians at vaccination clinics it was running. MSF goes as far as to allege it was “used” as a means of luring large numbers of civilians to 7 different locations where Congolese troops allegedly fired into the crowds, in what appears to be an attempted assault on the rebel militia Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), operating in northeastern DR Congo.
The Nobel Prize-winning charity that despatches doctors and medical staff to some of the world’s most dangerous and remote places does not lightly make such allegations, so it’s worth repeating the charge: MSF alleges the Congolese government gave it permission to provide vaccination to children at 7 different locations in order to mass civilians at those locations then deploy the military to attack the crowds.
All parties to the conflict had given security guarantees to MSF to vaccinate at these locations at those times. However, the Congolese national army launched attacks on each of the vaccination sites. All the people who had come to get their children vaccinated were forced to flee the heavy fighting. Scattering everywhere, they are now in unknown locations and thus cannot be vaccinated. MSF had to stop their activities in these zones and evacuate the teams to Goma city.
“We feel we were used as bait,” said Luis Encinas, head of MSF programmes in Central Africa. “The attacks coincided with the beginning of our vaccination and put the lives of civilians in extreme risk. Thousands of people, and the MSF teams, were trapped in the gunfire.
The clear implication—if the military refused to make any effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and even used large crowds specifically including large numbers of children—is that the Congolese government and military are engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
There have long been allegations of this kind of indiscriminate violence against civilians, including a refusal by the government to investigate or prosecute allegations its soldiers have engaged in mass rape, torture and other acts of brutality against the civilian population.
MSF called the attacks “an unacceptable abuse of humanitarian action to fulfil military objectives” and speculated that the civilian population may now be too scared to seek any of the desperately needed medical services provided by the aid group. The group also demands that all sides honor the work of humanitarian organizations, warning that failure to do so will leave those in need in unspeakably desperate situations, cut off from medical and nutritional assistance.
The MSF website also gives an update on the extent of its charitable activities in the Kivu region:
65,000 children aged from six months to 15 years were vaccinated against measles during this campaign in the Masisi region. In Masisi, MSF supports a hospital, a health centre, runs mobile clinics and vaccinations. MSF also brings medical care to the people in Walikale, Rutshuru, and Lubero districts, as well as in South Kivu province. MSF has worked in North Kivu since 1992.
Less than a week before MSF published the allegations, the UN revoked funding for a Congolese Army brigade accused of murdering at least 62 civilians between May and September. The killings were allegedly concentrated around the village of Lukweti, in North Kivu, and reportedly had an ethnic component.
Philip Alston, special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions for the UN, said any continued support by the UN for a brigade involved in such atrocities has to be considered “complicity”. Alston said the human rights situation in eastern DR Congo is “catastrophic” and urged action to halt, investigate and punish the atrocities.
In April, Congolese troops allegedly attacked the Shalio refugee camp in North Kivu, killing 50 civilians, and allegedly abducting and gang-raping at least 40 women. Women who survived the attack had been tortured and mutilated. According to the UN, there have been an additional 779,000 people internally displaced by intense fighting and atrocities in DR Congo.
There are now an estimated 2.12 million people who have fled their homes and remain internally displaced, living in camps, in the wilderness, on city streets or in other towns where they might have found shelter, in DR Congo. Across Africa, more than 1 million people have been forced to flee intense fighting in the last six months alone, bringing the total of internally displaced refugees to over 10 million across the continent.
In mid October, MSF reported that violence was spreading in northern DR Congo, now affecting large numbers of civilians in both the Haut Uélé and Bas Uélé regions:
One year after violence erupted in Haut-Uélé district, in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), attacks and clashes have now expanded to new areas, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee. Humanitarian organisations have failed to meet the massive needs that have resulted and an urgent response with greater presence in the rural areas of Haut-Uélé and Bas-Uélé is imperative, says the international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
Since late 2008, the civilian population of Haut-Uélé and Bas-Uélé has been caught up in a dramatic cycle of violence linked to attacks perpetrated by the Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the Ugandan and Congolese offensive against the LRA. As the situation deteriorates, civilians also find themselves facing increasing banditry.
“The local population is the target of violence: murder, kidnapping and sexual abuse,” said Luis Encinas, coordinator of MSF operations in Central Africa. “We are talking about tactics of violence aimed at instilling fear in the people. Our patients have told us the most brutal stories—about children who are forced to kill their parents and people burnt alive inside their homes.”
That extreme level of deliberate violence against the civilian population constitutes a war crime, no matter what the government’s reasoning, and some believe MSF’s reporting on the crimes may be motivating the military to target areas where the charity functions, in order to undermine the public’s willingness to speak to outsiders.
Others allege the Uélé raids and the vaccination center attacks in North Kivu are symptomatic of a war-zone mentality in which every line of distinction between combat and combat-free zones is blurred, and where combatants on all sides use terror-inducing violence to intimidate civilian populations seen as loyal to rival factions.
The Doctors without Borders (MSF) website reports that:
MSF is currently working in Dingila, Doruma, Dungu, Duru, Faradje, and Niangara, providing over 9,000 medical consultations a month in hospitals and health centres. MSF has also distributed relief items to some 16,000 people displaced by violence, as well as vaccinations and mental health support. 27 international staff work alongside 140 Congolese colleagues in MSF projects in Haut-Uélé and Bas-Uélé.
In many cases, MSF aid is the only way for tens of thousands of people to access state-of-the-art medical science, in regions with little to no functioning healthcare infrastructure. The organization’s charitable medical work not only puts their brave staff in harm’s way, it helps to reduce the unthinkable strain affected populations find themselves in, when faced with chronic conflict, which may in itself help to reduce the length and intensity of those conflicts.
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Originally published November 10, 2009, at CafeSentido.com