, LONDON, July 14 – Sexual violence, torture and forced labour among civilians have surged in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since a government offensive against rebels began in January, campaigning charity Oxfam has said.
The international aid agency surveyed 569 civilians living in 20 conflict-ridden communities in Nord and Sud Kivu provinces.
They found that they were living "in constant fear of violent attack" from the rebels and Congolese troops alike.
"The war is far from over for ordinary civilians. Over 80 percent of the people we interviewed said that security is worse now compared to a year ago," said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in DR Congo.
Congo’s army launched a joint operation with Rwanda’s armed forces in late January against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who have operated out of the region since the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
"The offensive against the FDLR was supposed to bring peace to eastern Congo, but our survey shows people are living in constant fear of violent attack," Stoessel said.
"This suffering is not inevitable. It is happening because world leaders have decided that collateral damage is an acceptable price to pay for removing the FDLR. But as the people we met can testify, that price is far too high."
He called on the United Nations mission in the DRC (MONUC) to "withhold support from the operation if abuses continue or go unpunished."
Oxfam also said MONUC "must insist that known human rights abusers are removed from participating in the operations."
The survey found sexual violence had dramatically increased since the offensive began. Women were most likely to be the victims but children and men had also been targeted.
A quarter of the communities surveyed spoke of torture, with some reporting that people were buried up to their necks in the ground by FDLR members until they agreed to pay their captors for their release.
Meanwhile, all the communities reported abuses by the Congolese army, Oxfam said, from press-ganging men and teenage boys into carrying their supplies, to extortion and sexual violence.