Decrypting the dynamics of continuing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is challenging at the best of times, more so given the profound political uncertainty that currently reigns at the national level. The consequent access, or lack thereof, to medical and humanitarian services for the population is both a function of the current crisis and the result of years of distortion. Longstanding factors to take into account include the multiple forms the conflict has taken, state neglect, and dependence on international actors.
North Kivu provides a revealing vantage from which to analyse both the current levels of violence and the impact on the population. As elsewhere in the country, a polarized political impasse has combined with an economic crisis that provides an outlet to a multitude of other frustrations. The province also hosts a large number of (non-state) armed groups, often with local grievances centred on land ownership or ethnicity, that have become embedded in the socio-economic landscape over the past two decades.
There might not be a tangible increase in overall violence in North Kivu compared to previous years, but this depends very much how it is calculated and which area is being examined. Tracking violence and the abuse suffered by civilians is less about marking significant changes than providing nuance. FARDC offensives with periodic MONUSCO support continued throughout the year, especially when politically expedient. And armed groups retaliated, and fought amongst themselves, with the civilian population regularly caught in the middle or targeted themselves.
Armed groups in particular continued to lose influence on the national level but nevertheless multiplied and fragmented. And putting aside the vagueness of distinguishing armed clashes from criminal violence, it is possible to quantify a clear increase in banditry and kidnapping, particularly along major transport axes and a corresponding decrease elsewhere. Meanwhile the risk of urban unrest remains real as both national and local grievances are aired.
Access to healthcare was a direct casualty both during the peaks of violence but also as a result of chronic insecurity. Forced closure of displaced camps and mid-year offensives by FARDC and MONUSCO in Rutshuru and Masisi against the FDLR (and allies), and the ADF in the Grand Nord led to an increase in displacement, partially offset but a decrease in violence elsewhere. And irrespective of the conflict, access to healthcare was regularly compromised for the entire population. When access did improve it was in part due to the heavy presence of aid organisations, a destabilizing factor in other respects.
While there was no direct targeting of aid organizations linked to confusion over MONUSCO’s role there were several incidents of note, and vigilance is clearly still required. All the more so given the pro-government mandate, and perceived pro-government bias amongst the population and armed groups themselves. However, it was the obligatory negotiation with multiple armed actors, violent crime, and the consequences of a lack of state social structures that posed the greatest challenges in providing humanitarian support. Agencies attempting to do so must continue to operate under the same constraints, and incur the same risks, as those to which the population are subjected.
UPDATE: MSF Strongly Condemns Violent Robbery of Compound in North Kivu (Dec 4, 2017).
Full report available here: Impact of Violence on Medical and Humanitarian Services in North Kivu, DRC.
By Duncan McLean. Photo by Gwenn Dubourthoumieu © Gwenn Dubourthoumieu, 2016.