GENEVA – The U.N. refugee agency is racing to help tens of thousands of Congolese forced to flee a recent upsurge of violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
More than two-thirds of the DR Congo’s 5.5 million internally displaced people fled because of armed conflict in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. The latest surge of fighting, which has displaced more than 50,000 people, is compounding the misery of a displaced population that is the largest in Africa.
The U.N. refugee agency reported that brutal attacks in North Kivu, many blamed on the armed group Allied Democratic Forces, have displaced a huge number of children, including many who are unaccompanied.
UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said civilians are caught up in a vicious cycle of violence and displacement, with many forced to flee for the second time this year. Fighting in Pinga, an area in North Kivu, has reached an alarming stage, she said.
Mantoo added that a U.N. inter-agency mission that went to the area in August received reports of human rights violations, including killing, rape, kidnapping and use of child soldiers.
“Over 270 children associated with armed groups were identified, and allegations of child recruitments, killings and mutilation of children, and sexual violence against children were also documented,” she said. “At least 54 children who were recently released by one armed group were then apparently forced to join an opposing faction in the area.”
Mantoo said similar scenes of brutality are occurring in Ituri Province. In the southern territory of Irumu, she said there has been a sharp increase in violence with the emergence of a new armed group.
At the same time, she noted there has been an intensification of attacks by other armed groups and militia in the region.
“These groups all apply the same destructive methods of looting and burning houses to the ground, which makes it difficult for the displaced to return to their villages,” she said. “Since July this year, more than 120,000 people have been displaced by this surge of violence in the Southern Territory. … Armed groups have continued their attacks in September, killing at least 43 people and kidnapping 17 more in the territory.”
The displaced are having a hard time meeting their basic needs, Mantoo said, adding that shelter is scarce and many are forced to sleep out in the open. She said the UNHCR, partners and local authorities are providing shelter, health care, water, and sanitation and protection.
She said the aid is crucial but much more is needed, with funding covering only 61 percent of this year’s $168 million appeal for refugee and IDP assistance in DRC.