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18 September 2001

The church and the stranger: uprooted people in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Raymond Bitemo

When fighting broke out between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, about a million refugees fled into what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC). In 1996, widespread fighting in the RDC between rebels and government forces caused further refugee displacement. The devastating civil conflict in the RDC was renewed in 1998 and fighting continues sporadically, exacerbating the severe problem of uprooted people - refugees and internally displaced - in the region.

In addition to its efforts to address the root cause of this problem - civil war - the Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) held an extensive consultation in Kinshasa, 5-16 August, followed by a meeting of its executive committee, to educate its leaders and members on the issue of uprooted people and develop practical responses.

This article by Raymond Bitemo is the first in a series of three articles on uprooted people in the DRC, and part of a longer series on refugees and internally displaced persons. Bitemo, from Congo-Brazzaville, was forced to flee his home but now again lives in Congo-Brazzaville. The ECC is a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo's (RDC) three-year-old war and the problem of uprooted people are the main topics of conversation among Kinshasa's six million inhabitants, most of whom are providing a home for relatives from the occupied provinces. Almost three million people have died in the war. In its 11 August news bulletin, for example, RDC national radio reported that thousands of Angolans, fleeing the fighting that recently broke out between the army and rebel forces in the north of their country, had arrived in the province of Bas-Congo. And a local administrator with the World Food Programme says that "People requesting aid are arriving every day in the offices of the humanitarian agencies." Such reports indicate something of the scale of the problem of uprootedness in this country of around 60 million inhabitants.

No-one seems to know exactly how many uprooted people are living in the RDC today. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cites some 1,500,000 refugees, but does not include internally displaced people in this figure. The Church of Christ in the Congo (ECC) mentions a figure of 2,500,000 displaced people and refugees. The RDC minister of planning and reconstruction, Denis Kalume Numbi, says his department is coping with 6,400,000 internally displaced people and refugees from Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Liberia, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan. The refugees, known as "Nzenza" by the locals in Bas-Congo, "Mopaya" in Equator and "Mukimbizi" in the eastern provinces, are not only people from the neighbouring countries. There are also thousands of Congolese driven out by the war and living in Congo-Brazzaville and Central Africa.

The problem of the uprooted in the RDC is a textbook case to which the government, humanitarian agencies and churches have been unable to find an adequate response.

At government level, the minister of social affairs, Jeanne Ebamba Boboto, acknowledges that her department has been powerless to cope with the situation. "Sad to say, most of the uprooted people in our country are living in extremely poor conditions. Whole families have been living for more than two years on sites that were set up here and there. They are in a deplorable situation; others are wandering the streets of towns and cities up and down the country because they have lost their homes," she says.

Knocking at the door of the church
"This tragedy speaks to all our consciences. Society at large and the church in particular must think about how they can rise to this challenge," said ECC national president Mgr Marini Bodho at the opening of a consultation on "The Church and the stranger: the ECC and the care of uprooted people in the RDC" held in Kinshasa from 5 to 16 August 2001.

The decision to bring together people from various social sectors in the RDC and experts from abroad to discuss this theme resulted from the ECC's realization that it has a duty to care for uprooted people but is ill-equipped for such work.

Synod delegates from the occupied provinces in the east were determined to make the journey to the consultation to tell of their experiences. A pastor from Bukavu in South Kivu, for example, reported that his province is "the worst affected in the country, with nearly 500,000 refugees and war displaced; many of them come knocking at the church's door every day asking for help. As soon as the ECC national office informed us that a consultation on refugees was being held, we decided to take the risk of getting here." The South Kivu group flew to Kinshasa via Kigali and Nairobi, and had good reasons to fear for their lives on their return.

Other reports from the regions told of the break-up of a country and the massive humanitarian tragedy endured by those uprooted by the war. The provinces occupied by rebel forces are the scene of robbery, rape, pillaging, live burials. People are wandering about in the bush, all farming has come to a halt, the economic, social, educational and health infrastructures have been destroyed, and the recruitment of child soldiers continues. The reception zones for refugees from the neighbouring countries and internally displaced people are in provinces under government control, but structures are inadequate and there is a crying lack of basic goods.

The consultation also heard from local and foreign academics, government ministers and members of parliament, church leaders and representatives of humanitarian agencies and western embassies. Presentations considered uprootedness from historical, theological, legal, political, humanitarian, diplomatic and economic angles. Poverty, injustice, xenophobia and globalization were identified as being the main causes of the war and the consequent uprooting of the RDC population. But, said Congolese professor Roger Kibasomba from de Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, "we must also ask ourselves about our own share of responsibility in allowing a situation to develop that is now being exploited by outside economic interests."

Pointing to two plants - one standing upright, its roots firmly anchored in soil that nourished it and enabled it to grow, the other with its roots torn up, doomed to die from lack of nourishment - "What does this image mean for us as the church?" asked Rev. Shirley DeWolf from Zimbabwe, regional coordinator of the church's ministry with uprooted people in Southern Africa and a member of the WCC's Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA).

Affirming that "as the church, we are called to help all people who are uprooted," All Africa Conference of Churches' (AACC) Committee on Refugees and Emergencies president Rev. S. Tilewa Johnson, bishop of Gambia, encouraged the ECC to develop a support programme that would ensure that "uprooted people themselves are involved in identifying the real needs". But "How is one to identify who should receive support in a country where food security no longer exists and where almost the entire population, including the church, is living in a state of want because of economic collapse and war?" asked Caritas deputy director Bruno Miteyo.

The consultation made a number of recommendations as to how the ECC Ministry for Refugees and Emergencies (MERU) might equip itself to meet these many challenges over the next decade. The recommendations referred to the need for internal restructuring, the need to map out a work programme, to raise awareness in order to mobilize national resources, to build an effective information network in order to strengthen its capacity to handle emergencies, and to cooperate with the government, humanitarian agencies and churches in Europe, the USA and Canada. The consultation also asked the WCC and the AACC to help convene a conference of church leaders from the Great Lakes region countries to examine the question of uprooted people, and propose alternative solutions to the political decision-makers.

For more information contact:
Karin Achtelstetter
WCC Media Relations Officer
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
tel.: (+41 79) 284 5212 (mobile);
e-mail: media
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.