Friday, December 15

Negotiating Humanitarian Access in Ituri, Eastern DR Congo, 1999- 2004

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Negotiating Humanitarian Access in Ituri, Eastern DR Congo, 1999- 2004

Africa has seen damaging conflicts, each taking its toll on the people who live within her borders. The Congo has seen perhaps some of the most damage. This article looks at the negotiation skills of Ituri-based Congolese relief workers who had had to deal with roadblock militias in war-torn Ituri.

The six year conflict in Ituri caused some 60,000 civilians to die; within this period only six non-governmental organizations (NGOs) brought relief throughout or during most of the crisis. These included Medair, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Oxfam, Caritas-Belgium, German Agro Action (Welthunger-shilfe) and the Italian NGO Cooperation Internationale (COOPI).

For many relief agencies, humanitarians tend to treat political economy issues ‘as background to the essentially technical business of delivering aid, rather than as a central and immediate aspect of humanitarian need and humanitarian response’; however, there are some who believe that you have to work within the political box, as Anneke van woudenberg, former Oxfam representative in the DRC, said in a seminar.

The conflicts in Ituri occurred from previously evolved socio-cultural and economic differences within the region. The clashes that occurred from both sides were violent and bloody.

Organizations like Oxfam and COOPI initially flew in from other parts of eastern Congo. They brought with them staff of Congolese heritage, unaware that they would bringing them into a place where they were met with outright hostility. This ‘imported’ Congolese staffs were initially matter of serious political agitation. In 2002, Hema association ENTE stated:

“From June 1999 onwards, we observed an influx of humanitarian organizations -of the UN system and NGOs working in Kivu- towards Bunia. They brought with them Congolese workers from Kivu to the detriment of the Iturians. Worse still, these [UN] organizations and NGOs systematically refused to employ Hema candidates under the pretext that “Hema were already sufficiently rich and did not need any assistance whatsoever”. Why is it that those from Kivu have a grudge against the Hema? . . . [Why do they] lack all sense of impartiality, [and]excel in their unjustified hostility towards Hema?”

Hema did not cease at accusing the humanitarians; at one point they claimed that they had introduced cholera so that they could kill Hema children. Vehicles were overturned and stoned and MSF pulled out.

The humanitarians were able to negotiate their way by the use of church-based networks. The medical co-ordinator in Bunia explained that “Some of our health centres (like Aveba) have radios, but others (like Bambu) do not. With Aveba there is regular contact, but health workers from health centres like Bambu must make the first move and contact us. Health workers who cannot be contacted by radio know how to get in touch through the medical resource people (des personnes clees) we have throughout Ituri. Of course, we’d love to give radios to every health post, but this cannot be done because of the real risk that militias appropriate the equipment for their own ends”.

The first step for humanitarians was to contact the destination to assess the security situation; the second step was a distribution visit, generally made via car. Contact would be made via radio and it was at this point that indirect negotiations would take place military forces and/or militias. Sometimes the military authorities would give the agencies letters stamped with OCHA, which would provide written guarantees.

Throughout the conflict, humanitarian agencies have been accused of ‘favouring the other side’, presenting them with gifts, some which may have been larger than what has been recorded. However, Lubanga seized power in Bunia in August 2002, the tables were turned and they claimed that the humanitarians had abandoned them.

No matter what the political influence the humanitarians may have had to deal with, the fact remained that they had to deal with harsh treatment and dangerous situations to allow them to provide relief and aid to the innocent people who desperately needed it.


Pottier, Johan (2006) Roadblock Ethnography: Negotiating Humanitarian Access in Ituri, Eastern DR Congo, 1999- 2004, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Edinburgh University Press.


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