Church Groups Respond as Congo Conflict Deepens

( [email protected] ) Nov 28, 2008 06:15 AM EST

Church-related aid agencies are assisting civilians displaced by the eastern Congo conflict as the U.N. special envoy made another effort on Friday to arrange peace talks between Congo’s government and Tutsi rebels.

U.K.-based Tearfund’s church partner agencies are delivering food, water, emergency medical supplies as well as providing shelter to some of the tens of thousands of families affected by the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

More than 250,000 people have been forced to flee their homes to escape the intensified fighting in recent weeks, adding to more than one million who have already been displaced by the conflict.

Among those of particular concern are the some 300 displaced pregnant women and children in the rebel-held territory north of Goma. These vulnerable women and children had fled the violence with nothing with them except the clothes they were wearing, the aid group reports. Many of the women are said to be traumatized by the experience.

HEAL Africa, a Tearfund partner, has given these pregnant women clothes and blankets, while HEAL Africa’s Choisir la Vie (Choose Life) program has provided emergency food supplies to people at an internally displaced person (IDP) camp in Masisi, west of Goma.

“Thousands of innocent people have been caught up in the conflict and are living in desperate conditions – they urgently need our help,” said Tearfund’s international director, Peter Grant.

“Tearfund and its partner agencies are doing all we can to ease their plight and with your support, we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead.

Likewise, Baptist World Aid, the relief and development arm of the Baptist World Alliance, has provided $30,000 for relief in the DRC. Funds will be used to provide food, water, and shelter for displaced persons.

Robert Bruce Paden of the Evangelical Community of Baptist Churches of Eastern Congo (CEBCE) reported that the Baptist church community has been “devastated” by the war and he estimated that 80 percent of the pastors and people in the churches have fled because of the fighting in the area.

The BWA also received report that both the rebel group and government militias have been accused of raping young girls and women and forcing children to join their forces. There is one known child of a Baptist pastor who was forced to join the army, and parents who refused to hand over their children are being killed.

“A silent war has been waged against women and children,” said Sue Mbaya, World Vision’s Africa advocacy director, at the U.N. Security Council Arria Formula briefing by NGO’s on Tuesday.

“Women and girls in the hundreds have been targets of opportunistic and brutal rape, while children are also being targeted for recruitment or re-recruitment as child soldiers,” Mbaya explained.

According to the World Vision survey, 120 girls under the age of 17 reported being raped in October among the six displacement camps run by the ministry, compared to only five reported cases in 12 Child-Friendly Spaces between April and June.

Another finding is that children as young as 7 years old are being forced to fight.

“Some children are being abducted and others are joining armed groups voluntarily because they lack food and access to education or vocational skills,” Mbaya said.

World Vision has distributed emergency items, including blankets, plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, soap, cooking equipment, and mosquito nets to more than 20,000 displaced people, and hopes to reach more than 200,000 people with its program in the next two months.

As aid groups take care of victims on the Congo conflict, the United Nations is trying to put together peace talks between the two warring parties. Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo plans to meet President Joseph Kabila on Friday on a second mission trip in two weeks to try to end the conflict in eastern Congo, according to Reuters.

A ceasefire between the Tutsi rebel General Laurent Nkunda and government forces is currently in place, but the rebels are still attacking pro-government militias.

On Friday, a Ugandan Army spokesman said the rebels have captured two more border posts and another town in eastern Congo, according to The Associated Press.

The U.N. Security Council recently agreed to increase its peacekeeping troops in Congo with an additional 3,000 soldiers and police officers to be added to its current mission of 17,000. It is unclear when additional troops will arrive.