Congo's Neglected Tragedy

The roads here are awful, partly because of perennial disrepair and partly because of a 2002 volcanic eruption that covered large areas of Goma with black lava. Now the town is the site of a major peace conference, so a few potholes were filled with sand. One can only hope that whatever results from this meeting has a firmer base.

The conference opened Sunday and is scheduled to end next week. Some 1,300 people are attending. Congolese television showed the inaugural speeches, full of hope. It has been 16 months since the current conflict (the most recent of many) began in North Kivu. "The time for peace has come," said the conference's president.

To be sure, peace is desperately needed. Since September 2006, some 400,000 people from North Kivu have been displaced. They are in camps and host communities in Congo or in the neighboring countries of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. Violence, especially against women and children, has made the region a frightfully dangerous place. I have encountered rape victims as old as 66 and as young as 14 months -- many of them in need of surgical intervention.

In anticipation of the peace conference, both the government and its main adversary, the renegade Gen. Laurent Nkunda, announced unilateral cease-fires. But there are four warring factions here; the others are Rwandan Hutu rebels and jungle Mai-Mai militias. So there is no effective truce while the politicians talk peace.

As the badges for the peace conference were being distributed, the United Nations announced that in the past few days, Mai-Mai soldiers had fought Nkunda's men, Nkunda's troops had taken new territory from the government, and government soldiers had stopped the convoy of an international nongovernmental organization and confiscated its medical supplies. Another NGO convoy was robbed at gunpoint of money and four mobile phones after being halted by uniformed men in a territory controlled by government forces.

Meanwhile, in North Kivu, an ambush by Rwandan Hutu rebels killed two civilians and injured five. Members of my organization, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), have been robbed three times in the past two months. The day the conference began, all humanitarian aid vehicles were stopped because of a riot by people in the town of Rutshuru who were demanding more representation at the conference.

Rutshuru has protested in the past. In November the inhabitants threw rocks at a building of MONUC, the U.N. mission in Congo, and 27 soldiers were seriously wounded. Four IRC health clinics have been attacked and looted in the Rutshuru area. To maintain only a small stock of drugs and thus prevent the facilities from being targeted presents another inconvenience: Resupply trips must be more frequent.

In another town, for almost two months, the constant exchange of fire has delayed meetings with midwives, the community and the priest -- meetings necessary to begin assistance for victims of sexual violence. The United Nations reports 13 security incidents targeting humanitarian organizations in the past six months.

Some humanitarian groups (including the IRC) came to Goma in 1994 to assist those fleeing the Rwandan genocide. Others came in 1996 when the war against dictator Mobutu Sese Seko started to take a toll on the civilian population, displacing hundreds of thousands.

North Kivu has not been completely peaceful since then, and this big conference -- called by Congolese President Joseph Kabila after government troops failed to uproot the troops of the renegade Gen. Nkunda -- may bring no respite. In December, the security situation was so uncertain that -- in an unprecedented move -- our colleagues from five international NGOs decided to go on a two-day strike to show local residents what it feels like when humanitarian aid is not there. The strike did little to change things.

We in the humanitarian aid groups fly big flags with our logos to identify ourselves, and we never take the escorts that MONUC offers. Rather, we rely heavily on community participation. And because North Kivu's problems will not go away even if the shooting stops, we have made a long-term commitment: We're trying to make aid feel more like a call from a family doctor who will always be there than a rushed emergency intervention by an ambulance.

The head of the U.N. refugee agency, Ant¿nio Guterres, recently said of Congo: "Nobody in the outside world feels threatened, and so the international community is not really paying attention."

As "family doctors" to the Congolese in North Kivu, we, alas, agree.

Anna Husarska, senior policy adviser at the International Rescue Committee.