As we drove past the dusty and crowded streets of downtown Goma, a city of almost 400,000 people in North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was business as usual. In well-stocked shops vendors and buyers argued over prices of goods and people filled the streets calmly going about their daily lives.
Located on the slopes of the Nyiragongo volcano, Goma is the heart of a region once again embroiled in conflict. In recent months, violence by soldiers calling themselves the M23 who mutinied from the Congolese armed forces has had a devastating impact on villages and localities around that region.
Here in Goma, however, peace and security prevails, thanks in part to the visibly robust presence of peacekeepers of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) that patrol the city along with the national authorities. Goma is potentially the region's biggest hotspot. For now, it may well be the safest area in all of North Kivu.
Not far from the city, thousands of displaced people have sought shelter in schools and churches, after fleeing from marauding armed groups. Although our peacekeepers have redeployed to prevent, along with the Congolese Army, further advances by the M23, and to protect civilians in areas where they are at highest risk, the challenges they face are enormous.
Since last April when the M23 mutiny started, the number of displaced persons has increased by 260,000. There are now some 719,000 in North Kivu alone. In addition, 60,000 more refugees have been registered in neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda. There are a number of reports of serious human rights violations, including recruitment of child soldiers and summary executions by the M23 which is also establishing "de facto" administrations in areas where it is present while pilfering Congolese resources, including minerals. The M23 also appears to be receiving external support. This is unacceptable.
Equally disturbing is the recent upsurge in the activities of other armed groups throughout North and South Kivu. On the heels of the M23 mutiny, several such groups of rebels have sprung back to life after having been on the defensive, once again killing, looting and raping. Among them, the Force Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and various so-called Mayi Mayi militias. These armed groups are taking advantage of security voids created as a result of the M23 mutiny and efforts to stem their advances. Tragically, this means that gains made over the past years in stabilising the region with the support of MONUSCO are being reversed.
Eastern Congo should not be allowed to slide back to its violent past. Over the last two decades, this region has suffered the brunt of regional conflicts and a lack of State authority. The activities of both foreign armies and externally-backed and national armed groups have caused enormous human suffering. Arguably, it is the single most war-affected region in Africa. Everything possible must be done to ensure the restoration of peace, stability and normal livelihood to the people.
A number of initiatives are under way in the region, especially by the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). We support these efforts.
Building on them, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called for a High-Level meeting of the region's leaders and key international stakeholder focusing on the situation in eastern DRC on 27 September, in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The meeting aims to support regional efforts and renew political mobilization at the international level to help chart a way forward for addressing the crisis.
While bringing together actors with a stake in the region to obtain a peaceful solution to the current conflict, it is important to insist on two basic principles guiding the action of the United Nations: the utmost urgency of ensuring an end to humanitarian suffering and the need to respect the sovereignty of the DRC.
Coincidentally, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Global and all-inclusive agreement on transition in the DRC - a process at the national and regional levels that led to the end of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It marked a realisation by all actors that a political solution was the only path to peace in the region.
A decade later, there is a need for renewed commitment to stabilizing eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Great Lakes region. Now is the time to work together to ensure immediate progress on establishing the peace, stability and improved economic prospects which the people of eastern DRC so urgently need and so justly deserve. UN peacekeepers stand ready to help.
Hervé Ladsous is a UN Under-Secretary-General and the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)