In September, world leaders from almost every country converged in New York for a week of meetings and events at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). This year, with the number of displaced people reaching record-breaking numbers, the need for greater attention on humanitarian crises by the world’s leaders is critical. While there were a number of events that highlighted the severe conditions of refugee populations around the world – including a high-level meeting on the response to near famine conditions in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen – several crises remain well below the radar of international attention. One unfolding crisis that has received remarkably little attention is the situation in the Grand Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
For decades, the DRC has experienced protracted civil conflict, particularly in the country’s eastern region. However, within the past year, an additional severe crisis has emerged in the DRC’s southern provinces known as Grand Kasai. Since August 2016, violence and upheaval have threatened the lives of millions there. According to the United Nations, 1.4 million people have been displaced over the last year. This brings the country’s total to 3.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are fleeing violence from government forces and various militias. These figures make the DRC the country with the largest number of IDPs in Africa. Despite the alarming numbers of people in need, as well as the grave atrocities being carried out, the Kasai region has received very little international attention and humanitarian funding.
The Kasai region has long been known as an opposition stronghold, with a historical secessionist sentiment.
Clashes in Kasai began as a result of political tensions between the government and Kamuina Nsapu, a local chief and opponent of President Kabila. Fighting intensified following the chief’s death and local opposing militias formed: the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which is named for the late chief and seeksto avenge his death, and the Bana Mura, which supports the Kabila government.
This conflict has since also taken on an ethnic dimension, igniting tensions between groups who consider themselves ‘native’ to the Kasai and ethnic groups they view as ‘non-native.’ All groups involved in the fighting have used brutal forms of violence, including mutilations, decapitations, and sexual violence. These tensions have been further magnified by the support the Bana Mura receives from the DRC’s official armed forces (FARDC).
The severity of the situation in the Kasai became evident when 80 mass graves were discovered by the UN mission, with all groups denying any involvement. The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) declared that at least 428 people were killed by the FARDC in collaboration with the Bana Mura, and 37 by Kamuina Nsapu since January 2017. The actual number of deaths is likely to be higher – the Congolese Catholic Church has reported 3,383 deaths since October 2016. More than 30,000 people have fled from the Kasai region into Angola, seeking protection and support, and another 1.4 million people are internally displaced. The UN estimates that roughly one million people are food insecure, including 400,000 children who are facing malnutrition. The needs are staggering.
Despite the critical unmet needs and the appalling crimes taking place in Kasai, international funding remains severely inadequate. In fact, according to United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), less than 25 percent of the 2017 DRC request for $748 million in aid has been funded. Similarly troubling, less than half of the emergency appeal for the Kasai crisis has been funded. This marks the lowest funding level for the DRC in ten years, despite the escalation in violence and the growing humanitarian crisis.
Furthermore, in March of this year, the United Nations, under pressure from the United States to cut budgets, decided to cut the number of peacekeeping troops in the DRC (known as MONUSCO) – a reduction of 3,600 peacekeepers.
In early June, Stephen O’Brien, the then-United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, declared the Kasai crisis to be a top emergency for OCHA. However, as the low funding levels indicate, addressing the conflict in Grand Kasai remains a low priority for the international community. If the emerging international consensus enshrined in the much-touted 2016 New York Declaration is to have any meaning, it is past time for the international community to step up and truly dedicate itself to the civilian protection in the DRC and provide adequate humanitarian responses as a truly global responsibility.
Devon Bruzzone is a former intern of Refugees International.
Top photo: A boy walks past the ruins of the destroyed house of customary chief Kamuina Nsapu, whose death last August sparked months of deadly fighting between the government army and Kamuina Nsapu’s militia in Tshimbulu near Kananga, the capital of Kasai-central province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron Ross