When the recent upsurge in fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo triggered another mass exodus from around the North Kivu town of Goma, it seemed that life could hardly get much worse for the inhabitants of this remote and volatile region.
After almost two decades of intermittent armed conflict and festering insecurity, vast numbers of people have died, mostly from disease and malnutrition, and countless more have been displaced, many of them repeatedly. Civilians have been systematically subjected to appalling abuses by all the many parties to Congo's chronic conflict, with those forced to flee their homes left particularly vulnerable. The current wave of displacement has further compounded this misery and chaos, resulting in many more families being separated and hundreds of children once again exposed to physical and psychological abuse.
As armed groups have been retreating from Goma, so has the crisis quickly fallen out of the international spotlight again, consigned to its perennial cycle of conflict and displacement. Yet, the international community cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening in eastern Congo.
Dozens of humanitarian organisations have been deployed continuously since even before the first major armed conflict in 1996, struggling to respond to the most urgent needs of the population. This has been alongside a full UN military contingent searching for its own role within this chaotic political and security environment. Yet, peace and stability have remained stubbornly elusive, not least because North Kivu is one of Congo's most strategic and resource-rich provinces. It is all too easy to forget - or remain blissfully ignorant of - our own dependency on low-cost Congolese mineral resources to sustain our modern-day lives with affordable electronic consumption goods such as smartphones.
With the sheer complexity and intractability of the crisis, eastern Congo is increasingly at the epicentre of professional challenges confronted by the humanitarian community. How to engage with dozens of continuously mutating armed groups to ensure at least a minimum of access and protection of the civilian population against the most egregious attacks is one such challenge. Reaching populations in need when swathes of the vast country are inaccessible by road is another. So too is ensuring the safety and security of humanitarian workers operating in such a difficult environment. As they face these challenges, humanitarian organisations are compelled to adapt and develop new strategies not only to gain access to displaced populations, but also to build on their strength and resilience to help safeguard against repeated trauma.
The displaced themselves have clearly demonstrated that their chances of survival and longer-term recovery depend largely on their ability to maintain social connections. Reuniting family members, particularly separated or unaccompanied children, and reconnecting families in social networks, is therefore critical. Helping them to start rebuilding their livelihoods, for example through cash-for-work projects, is also important.
To this end, humanitarian workers may walk for several days in some of the most remote areas to look for and reconnect displaced communities, supporting them in re-establishing family and social links essential for their well-being. Over the last year alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) with the support of the Congolese Red Cross Society distributed over 30,000 messages across dispersed communities, one person at a time. Reuniting families and providing much-needed assistance are vital aspects of this approach. Special efforts are made to facilitate the reintegration of unaccompanied children in their communities of origin, which can be particularly sensitive for those who were part of armed groups and may have committed abuses against their own kin.
But the task at hand is huge. Increased efforts need to be invested in social networking approaches to enable international and local organisations to better reconnect displaced communities in crisis situations, and to be able to predict the evolution of crises.
In various contexts around the world, the ICRC, along with UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations, is working to develop innovative tools such as cellphone monitoring and state-of-the-art mapping resources using satellites and crowdsourced knowledge. Such tools can be a useful means to an end: to achieve proximity to those in need, and to better understand, protect and assist them. Re-establishing social networks in a context such as eastern Congo is not only a way to communicate, but a way to stay connected and ultimately to survive.
Peter Maurer is president of the International Committee of the Red Cross.