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DRC: Donors, UN Security Council must act to relieve humanitarian catastrophe in Eastern DR Congo

As Oxfam International unveils a new exhibition of photographs that put a human face to the ongoing conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the aid agency today called on the international community to stay focused on providing critical protection and humanitarian assistance for civilians in the embattled region.

The powerful exhibition, “Displaced: the Invisible Victims of Conflict in DRC,” which opens tonight in New York City, portrays the extraordinary resilience of internally displaced people (IDPs) in North Kivu Province where 425,000 civilians have been uprooted from their homes over the past year.

Continued fighting in the eastern province has been accompanied by severe malnutrition, disease, rape and death – just one year after the country’s historic democratic elections marked the first concrete step towards ending years of brutal conflict in the country. The haunting pictures of IDPs living in North Kivu’s squalid camps and informal settlements are a stark reminder of why strong, continued support by the international community remains necessary now and into the foreseeable future. Failure to provide this support could ultimately reverse the partial gains made over the last years and lead to further large-scale loss of life, Oxfam warned today.

December ushers in two pivotal moments for civilians in eastern DRC – the Security Council’s renewal of the UN peacekeeping mission there (MONUC) and the UN’s launch of the Humanitarian Action Plan for 2008 on December 11. Humanitarian funding for DRC in 2007 was a welcome increase on previous years, but still only 64% of the sum requested. The budgeted requirement for 2008 is $575 million. This year’s action plan addresses massive humanitarian needs across the country, and donors will have to rise to the challenge if those needs are to be met.

MONUC’s mandate will most likely be renewed. However, as the UN’s most expensive peacekeeping mission, costing $1 billion per year, ensuring funds for its current mandate is essential. The US, Japan, Germany and China are among the biggest financial contributors. In addition, peacekeepers from a wide range of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Uruguay and South Africa, need more systematic training and briefing and better communication with communities to improve their ability to protect civilians – especially women, who are being raped at an epidemic rate – from conflict and violence. It is also urgent that the international community, including donor governments and MONUC, continue to support urgently-needed security sector reform in DRC. Without it, the government will be unable to ensure the long-term security of its citizens in areas like war-torn North Kivu.

“These vivid photos put faces to the mind-boggling statistics of conflict in DRC. Over the past decade, more than 4 million people have died in the country in a series of vicious wars. Over 1.3 million are still unable to return home. It is impossible to mentally visualize such staggering levels of suffering. That is the power of this exhibition: it humanizes the conflict,” said Greg Puley, Head of Oxfam International’s New York office.

Celebrity photographer Nabil Elderkin, whose clients include musicians the Black Eyed Peas and John Legend, donated the photographs to Oxfam International. The exhibit marks Mr. Elderkin’s official debut as a humanitarian photographer, placing him on par with some of the world’s top photojournalists who work in conflict zones.

“I was overwhelmed by meeting such courageous people in eastern DRC who still live with incredible dignity even after the unthinkable horrors they have experienced. Before traveling to North Kivu with Oxfam, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the tragedy that I witnessed. It was truly humbling to meet families are doing everything they can to make their lives better in the face of constant threat of violence, disease and hunger,” said Mr. Elderkin.

The exhibit, hosted by Oxfam International and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), will be on display in the UN General Assembly building in New York through the end of the year. The opening night event at the Millennium UN Plaza Hotel and the exhibition would not have been possible without additional support provided by the Black Eyed Peas’ Pea Pod Foundation, musician John Legend’s Show Me Campaign, The Icon and Blur Photo.

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