11/30/2012 02:24 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2013

The Democratic Republic of Congo: It is Time for Civilians to Come First

Almost two weeks have passed since I returned from Masisi in the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There I witnessed civilian suffering on a shocking scale. We looked on helplessly as innocent families were deliberately targeted and burned out of their homes. They carried their belongings wrapped up in blankets as they scattered across the countryside just to escape the ravages of a conflict not of their making. The same scenes played out in village after village across many valleys in North Kivu.

Fighting has escalated rapidly. The country is on the brink of a devastating crisis, yet it still fails to make the headlines. This is hugely difficult to reconcile with the horror and absolute dismay we felt as we watched homes and livelihoods go up in smoke. Some 10,000 people were forced to seek refuge in Masisi center following these events. And this was just a sideshow to the main event. Opportunistic armed groups taking advantage of weakened security in the area while government (FARDC) troops were re-deployed elsewhere to deal with the growing threat posed by the M23 rebel group.

Displacement on a massive scale has taken place again as a result of M23's advance on Goma--at least 60,000 already displaced people were forced to flee again from a camp in Kanyaruchinya. It is estimated that some 450,000 Congolese have sought refuge in neighboring countries, while a further 1.4 million remain internally displaced in the eastern region of the DRC. These are all people who been cut off from their means of income and are relying now on host families and humanitarian agencies for food, water, shelter--their most basic needs. But agencies have experienced serious setbacks in delivering the required aid as many, including Concern Worldwide, have been forced to evacuate staff from affected areas.

Securing safe access to assistance is the just one step on the road to building some semblance of a normal life for the people of eastern DRC. In this regard, the UN stabilization forces, known as MONUSCO, must fulfill their mandate to protect civilians. They were present in Masisi when we witnessed local militia groups wreak havoc on innocent people's lives but they did not intervene. Nor were they able to halt the progress of M23 as they took Goma and continued onwards to Sake and Bukavu. Following negotiations this week, some reports suggest that M23 have agreed to retreat from Goma without conditions. However, the situation remains incredibly unpredictable and civilians are still being subjected to unimaginable levels of human rights abuses.

There are deeply disturbing reports of civilians suffering abuse at the hands of armed troops on all sides, including financial exploitation, abduction, rape, and murder. Horrifyingly, these are not unfamiliar experiences for the people of this region. Conflicts have raged in eastern DRC since the mid-1990s. More than 500,000 women have been raped and six million people have been killed in this time. It is a vicious cycle which must be broken. Until it is, the Congolese people need all the protection they can get and the capacity of MONUSCO to deliver on its mandate must be strengthened.

At the heart of all the fighting is the vast mineral wealth contained within the Kivu provinces. An abundance of metals like coltan, cassiterite, and gold has proved a curse to local populations rather than a blessing. These are all used in the production of mobile phone and other electronic technology and the high demand has fuelled conflict for years as different groups struggle to control supply. This places a huge obligation on manufacturers to ensure the traceability of the materials they are using.

It is simply not acceptable for consumer demand to drive such misery.

Long-term stability, however, will not be brought to the region until decisive political action is taken. The Congolese government needs to recognize this fact and work to foster regional cooperation. Economic initiatives which encourage cross border trade would strengthen capacity for long-term peace-building efforts and could finally enable civilians to benefit from the resource-rich land.

After almost two decades of displacement, exploitation, and violent abuse, civilians must now come first.