Sunday, October 27, 2013

DRC: US Department of State Issues Updated Travel Warning, Travel Discouraged in Many Areas

The Department of State warns US citizens of the risks of traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) (DRC) and urges citizens to avoid all travel to the city of Goma and the province of North Kivu, and all but essential travel to the province of South Kivu and the Ituri region in the province of Orientale. 

With ongoing instability and violence in North and South Kivu, northeastern Orientale, and northern and central Katanga province, the Department's ability to provide consular services to US citizens in these regions of the DRC is extremely limited.

Armed groups, bandits, and elements of the Congolese military remain security concerns in eastern DRC. These armed groups, primarily located in the North Kivu, South Kivu, and Orientale provinces, as well as the northern and central parts of Katanga province, and the eastern part of Maniema province, are known to pillage, steal vehicles, kidnap, rape, kill, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians are indiscriminately targeted. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is present near the border with Uganda, Central African Republic, and the Republic of South Sudan.

Violent clashes in North and South Kivu have resulted in significant displacements of civilians since September 2010. In April 2012, members of a rebel group that previously had been integrated into the Congolese military mutinied and heavy fighting occurred in Masisi and Rutshuru territories as well as in Virunga National Park. In November 2012, members of this group captured several towns north of Goma and Goma itself, the provincial capital of North Kivu province. Although the rebels withdrew from Goma in December 2012, the security and political situation in Goma and North Kivu remains tense and fragile. In March, June, and August 2013, fighting between government forces and the rebel group pushed the rebels away from Goma, and an additional short firefight took place in mid-September north of Goma. Hundreds of people have been killed or injured as a result of the clashes, and tens of thousands more have been internally displaced. Moreover, violence among foreign and Congolese rebel groups present in the northern part of North Kivu, and former Rwandan militants in the southern part of the province and throughout South Kivu, pose a serious and significant risk to travelers in the region. This fighting underscores the persistent insecurity arising from activities of rebel and other armed groups operating in the Kivu region, which contribute to the overall high risks and dangers associated with travel to eastern Congo. Travel to North and South Kivu and the Ituri region of Orientale province by Embassy personnel is currently restricted to essential business only. 

Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly disciplined security forces at numerous official and unofficial roadblocks and border crossings throughout the country. Requests for bribes in such instances are extremely common, and security forces have occasionally injured or killed people who refused to pay. In the past year, several US citizens were illegally detained by government forces, or were robbed of their valuables while being searched. Very poor infrastructure (road and air) makes the provision of consular services difficult outside of Kinshasa. 

The Embassy has received many reports of robberies and banditry in Goma after dark. In most such cases, the robbers have stopped cars and stolen money and other valuables. The poor condition of the roads, along with widespread new road construction around the city, contribute to the banditry problem, as traffic is either bottlenecked on the main road, or forced to travel on secondary roads with even worse conditions. The Department strongly urges travelers who must go to Goma not to travel after dark. 

Kinshasa has a critical crime threat level, and US citizens continue to be the victims of serious crimes, including armed robbery by groups posing as law enforcement officials in both urban and rural areas, especially after nightfall. Avoid walking alone and displaying cash and other personal property of value. 

Avoid taking photos in public, especially of government buildings and the airport (which are viewed as places of national security), police stations, the presidential palace, border crossings, and along the river, since doing so may lead to arrest. 

Lock vehicle doors and keep windows closed when driving. You should not stop at the scene of an accident or at intersections where people have gathered, as mobs can develop quickly. In areas where the roads are in poor condition and the speed limit is minimal, be wary of gangs of street children who may approach your car, open your door, and steal your belongings. Roadblocks are often found throughout the country, especially near government buildings and installations in Kinshasa, and should be avoided when possible. If stopped at a roadblock, keep doors locked and crack the window in order to communicate. 

Official Congolese motorcades pose hazards to motorists and pedestrians. Drivers should pull over to the far side of the road when sirens or security forces announce their presence. You should not take photographs of motorcades. Proceed only when security forces permit you to do so. 

There is no reliable public transportation system in the DRC. Overcrowded vans and taxis, which often do not meet western safety standards, serve as public transportation in Kinshasa. Few independent taxis are available, operating largely out of the big hotels, and most do not meet safety standards. You should avoid all travel by public transportation, and hire private transport from a reliable source. 

The DRC has few viable roads or railways, but does have several major waterways. Boat transport is widely used; however, the vessels are often overloaded and/or poorly maintained, and accidents are commonplace and often fatal. 

Public health concerns pose a hazard to US citizen travelers due to outbreaks of deadly viruses and other diseases, which can occur without warning and often without swift reporting by local health authorities. Information on personal protection for international travelers, including children, can be found at. Travelers are required to carry evidence of yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the DRC. Health officials at entry points, such as the airport in Kinshasa, will check for proof of vaccination. If you do not have evidence of a yellow fever vaccination, you may be denied entry or required to pay a fine. Malaria is common throughout the DRC and prophylaxis is recommended. Please consult with your healthcare provider for more information and advice on prophylaxis. 

Due to the recent outbreak of measles in the DRC, you should update your measles vaccination, if necessary, and refer to the CDC for additional guidance. Due to the high levels of air borne irritants (i.e., dust, burning trash, debris, etc.) individuals with respiratory illnesses should carry all their necessary medications and equipment with adapters. 

There is a high risk of traveler's diarrhea and cholera throughout the country. You can reduce this risk by using good judgment when choosing what food to eat and water to drink. When in restaurants, you should ask for bottled water and avoid ice. 

Due to the immense size of the country, the density of the Congo River rainforest, the terrible state of the roads, and the poor security situation, the only way to get around the country quickly is by plane. However, domestic air travel on Congolese or other local airlines in the DRC is not recommended. There have been several recent incidents causing deaths and injuries, including one on August 25, 2010, that killed all but one passenger. In April 2011, a United Nations operated flight crashed while landing in Kinshasa, killing 32 passengers and crew. In July 2011, a Boeing 737 crashed in Kisangani, killing more than 70 passengers. In March 2013, a domestic airline flight crashed in Goma, killing five crewmembers and passengers. Crashes of private aircraft are even more common. The US Embassy has prohibited official travel by US government employees and certain contractors on most airlines flying domestic routes in the DRC due to safety and maintenance concerns. International flights on foreign-owned-and-operated carriers are not affected by this prohibition. As there is no direct commercial air service to the US by carriers registered in the DRC, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the government of the DRC’s Civil Aviation Authority.

You should avoid all public demonstrations and areas where crowds have gathered because even peaceful events can become violent, and even deadly. You should exercise caution at all times, and closely monitor local and international news from reliable sources. Radio Okapi broadcasts in French on 103.5 FM at 0700, 0800, 1200, and 1800 hours, and provides updates throughout the day. English-language news can be found on BBC at 92.6 FM. In emergencies, the Belgian Embassy operates a French-language radio broadcast system at FM 98.8. Changes in security conditions may occasionally restrict the travel of US Embassy  personnel. 

COMMENT: Considering that the DRC threat level has been classified as "Critical" threat for crime by the US Department of State's four-tier threat level system of "Critical, High, Medium and Low," discretionary travel to this country is strongly discouraged.