Deaths of surrendered Congolese combatants “criminal,” says HRW

Soldier awaits arrival of Congolese Minister who will meet with Surrendered FDLR rebels at MONUSCO base. June 2014 (UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

More than 100 people have starved to death at a Congolese military camp, and Human Rights Watch says that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is responsible. The group charges that the country has neglected former rebel fighters and their families, who have little access to basic health care and food. Of those who have died, nearly 60 were children.

“The Congolese government’s neglect of these former fighters and their families is criminal,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher for HRW, in a new report. “Before more people die, the government should immediately move them to a place where they have food and health care and are treated with basic human decency.”

At least 42 former combatants, five women and 57 children died at Kotakoli camp since December. Interviews by HRW show that food and medical supplies are difficult to find in the camp. The nearest town, Gbadolite, is 100 kilometers away, and rough roads prevent delivery of vital supplies. People were told they could leave the camp to find food, but struggled because of the isolated location and dense forest.

The result is devastating. One 28-year-old former combatant told HRW that the camp looked like “the photos of the famine in Somalia and Ethiopia.” He said that starvation claimed as many as five lives a day. Another young man says he watched his son and daughter die because they could not get the medical care they needed. The clinic was so poor off that he had to lay down his own shirt for his children to rest upon as they slowly died.

“They died because there was no medicine,” he said in an interview. “There was no food and I didn’t have the means to find [food]for my family. I helplessly watched them dying. Can you imagine my pain when I thought about how I was going to bury my children? Until now, when I think of my children, I also feel like dying.”

The people in the camp are a part of the 941 fighters who surrendered to the Congolese military in September 2013. They were told that they would be held in Kotakoli for three months and then repatriated into Congolese society. It is a part of a larger plan implemented by the government, with United Nations support, to disarm rebels and stop the fighting.

The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program is still waiting implementation. Established in June, the latest DDR plan is considered to be a step forward from previous efforts. International donors financed previous DDR plans, but problems of corruption, poor planning and bad implementation prevented lasting change. The new plan and the November surrender of the M23 rebel group are reason for optimism about the Congo.

Meanwhile, the former rebels and their families wait in camps across the country with the hope that they can resume their lives.

Alexandre Luba Ntambo, Congo’s vice prime minister and minister of defense and former combatants, told HRW that lack of funding is to blame. The government says it recognizes the problem at Kotakoli and made plans for people to be moved from the camp on August 5.

Two months later, nobody has moved and the risks for further deaths remain. The lack of money should not be an excuse for inaction, said Sawyer.

“Rather than hand-wringing and hiding behind excuses that there is no money or transportation, the government should take urgent action to move those who remain at Kotakoli before more people die,” Sawyer said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.