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Dem. Rep. of Congo: tragedy unfolding in Goma
November 21, 2012

Dem. Rep. of Congo: tragedy unfolding in Goma
Hakizimana Uhwirire – a 25-year-old wheelchair-bound man – one of thousands displaced persons caught between the ongoing crisis in Goma. (Danilo Giannese/JRS)
"The situation is tragic. The consequences of the ongoing crisis in Goma are especially acute for individuals living in particularly vulnerable circumstances, such as children, older people, those with disabilities and health problems. They are often unable to flee the fighting, find safe haven or support themselves." ~ Danilo Giannese of JRS.

(Bujumbura, Burundi) November 21, 2012 – Tens of thousands of women, children and men are currently fleeing areas around the North Kivu capital Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, ahead of a violent armed advance conducted by the rebel group, March 23 Movement (M23) which took control of the city yesterday.

Jesuit Refugee Service and other humanitarian field staff report the civilian population, including thousands of families living in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in other areas of North Kivu, are reportedly in desperate need of food, shelter and other material assistance. However, most humanitarian and UN agencies have evacuated the majority of their field staff for security reasons.

"We have evacuated nearly all our staff from Goma. Given the security situation, all our activities, including assistance programs in the camps, have been suspended. However, our teams in nearby Masisi and Mweso are still in situ as the roads out of the country are too dangerous. We're particularly concerned about our local teams who are currently separated from their families in Goma. Fortunately, they've been in contact with their families and everyone is safe," said JRS Great Lakes Advocacy and Communications Officer Danilo Giannese, who himself was forced to leave Goma a few days ago.

"The situation is tragic. The consequences of the ongoing crisis in Goma are especially acute for individuals living in particularly vulnerable circumstances, such as children, older people, those with disabilities and health problems. They are often unable to flee the fighting, find safe haven or support themselves," said Mr Giannese.

Abandoned to their fate. Since the evacuation of most JRS staff, teams are unable to answer questions regarding the fate of the women, men and children in the most vulnerable circumstances.

"Did they survive the fighting yesterday? Did they find a temporary shelter from the tropical rains common to the region in this season? Did they find something to eat and medicines for their aliments? It's terrible, but we just don't know. Forced to evacuate from the most volatile areas, we don't have any information, for instance, on the fate of Hakizimana Uhwirire, a 25-year-old wheelchair-bound man," said Mr Giannese.

Last month, after his temporary home in an IDP camp in North Kivu was burned down following an incursion of armed groups in Masisi, JRS transferred Hakizimana's family to another camp on the outskirts of Goma.

Hakizimana, his mother and younger brother, believed they had finally reached a safe haven far away from the violent conflicts in Masisi district, the consequences of which were documented by JRS earlier this month.

"Here we will be safe, we will not risk our lives and we can think of rebuilding our existences," he told a JRS staff member that very day.

When humanitarian organizations operating in the camp built his new home, his eyes filled with hope that a new life was about to start for him and his family in improved conditions and peace. He expressed the desire to go back to school and work as a shoemaker in the camp to earn some money for his family.

Hakizimana's hopes lasted less than thirty days: crumbling as M23 rebels advanced towards Goma. Engaged in violent clashes, both the Congolese army and the M23 rebels have committed a number of human rights violations, such as abduction of civilians, looting and destruction of properties.

by Danilo Giannese
Advocacy and Communications Officer, Jesuit Refugee Service, Great Lakes Africa and
James Stapleton
Communications Coordinator, Jesuit Refugee Service International

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