April 13, 2018 / 12:18 PM / 11 days ago

Congo faces "Dante's Inferno" but shuns U.N. aid effort

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations called on Friday for global funding to aid millions of people facing hellish living conditions in Democratic Republic of Congo after years of factional bloodshed and lawlessness.

President Joseph Kabila’s government chose not to attend a U.N. pledging conference held in Geneva this week. Kinshasa has denied there is a humanitarian crisis and accused foreign powers of stigmatising the country and scaring away investment.

The United Nations is seeking $2.2 billion to support about 13 million people in Congo this year, including 2.2 million children with severe acute malnutrition that makes them susceptible to death from disease.

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock opened the conference without mentioning the government’s absence, but praised its “prominent role” and anticipated further cooperation.

“People sometimes forget that lots of things over the last 15 years have improved in Congo and that’s happened under the leadership of the government,” he told reporters.

Foreign Minister Leonard She Okitundu told Reuters that Congo remained open to discussions with the U.N., provided its views were taken into account.

However, he said Congo would refuse access for aid organisations funded by Belgium, the former colonial power in Congo.

“It’s about Belgium because that is a country that is undermining the DRC,” She Okitundu said.

Belgium’s deputy prime minister Alexander de Croo told the conference that Kinshasa’s absence was both regrettable and incomprehensible.

“To put an end to human suffering, the Congolese leaders must take this humanitarian crisis seriously,” he said.

SEXUAL ABUSE

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, head of the U.N. migration agency IOM in Congo described a microcosm of the dreadful plight of many ordinary Congolese - 1,000 families camped in a schoolyard that he visited in Kalemie, capital of Tanganyika province.

“It reminded me of when I first read Dante’s ‘Inferno’ - it was absolutely awful, living conditions were absolutely atrocious,” he told Reuters. “No proper water, people defecating wherever they could, shelters made of pieces of plastic or of rags on sticks.”

Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland said the “underfunded mega-disaster” got little international attention because Congolese migrants did not wash up on European shores and Congo’s conflicts did not involve the big powers.

Egeland said that on a visit to North Kivu province in the east of the vast Central African country in February he found most aid agencies had left because of lack of funds and growing danger from 100 militia groups in the area.

Women and children were being exposed to the “worst sexual abuse ever”, which could be neglected no longer, he said, adding that he hoped the “me too” social media campaign against sexual assault and harassment was not solely a “Western thing”.

“If we mean anything with the ‘me too’ campaign we should really help those with the worst abuse. This is abuse which is beyond anything,” Egeland said.

Around 4.3 million people have been displaced amid endemic violence - including machete attacks and gang rape - aggravated by a political crisis sparked by Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his mandate in 2016.

Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Aaron Ross and Amedée Mwarabu; editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Mark Heinrich

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