The Democratic Republic of Congo is the home of the world’s largest United Nations peacekeeping mission, with nearly 20,000 soldiers on the ground.
Since the disputed Nov. 28 presidential and parliamentary vote, there has been a “tense political climate in the country and several outbreaks of violence,” according to a statement on the UN website.
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The UN refugee agency says that despite the peace treaty and the 2008 power-sharing agreement that ended the Second Congo War, violence still plagues the troubled eastern province of North Kivu. The UNHCR says 500,000 people have fled their homes in recent years, further taxing the impoverished, war-torn province.
In recent months renewed clashes between the Congo army and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an ethnic Hutu militia known for attacking Rwanda and civilians in the Congolese countryside, has further strained the civilian population, according to the refugee agency.
As North Kivu refugee camps fill, families fleeing the violence have moved into makeshift settlements, often in remote, volatile areas that get sporadic humanitarian assistance.
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"Even if we get help from the humanitarian agencies from time to time, it's not enough to feed the whole family,” Justine, a 54-year-old widow and mother of five told the UNHCR. "We have to find other sources to help us survive."
“Other sources” means odd jobs, as farm hands or selling firewood, leaving civilians vulnerable to attacks from militants. The UNHCR says forced labor, rape and looting are frequent.
In a report published last summer, the American Journal of Public Health said 2 million women had been raped in Congo. Many were working in the fields or collecting firewood when armed militants attacked. Others were victims of mass rapes perpetrated by soldiers as a weapon of war. Militant groups are also known to raid villages and camps for supplies.
"These situations are frequent," said Justine. "They come, sometimes in your absence, and take everything."
The UN peacekeeping mission is supposed to help bring this situation under control.