Some 4,000 displaced people have escaped the clutches of militias in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), trekking for up to 80 kilometres though forests to reach sanctuary where they are receiving food and shelter from the United Nations refugee agency and its partners.
Their numbers are expected to grow. Some are still hiding in the nearby forest, naked and too ashamed to show themselves after ethnic Ngiti militiamen reportedly stripped fellow tribespeople trying to leave areas under their control. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Bukiringi, in the vast Orientale province, urgently need food and clothing.
“The Ituri population is tired of militia rule, even if the self-proclaimed commanders come from their community,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative Eusèbe Hounsokou said, referring to the province to the north from the IDPs fled.
They say they will not go back to their militia-controlled home areas, where they were virtual hostages.
The latest flights are just one of the many problems facing the huge country as it prepares to hold elections at the end of next month to cement its transition from a six-year civil war that cost 4 million lives through fighting and attendant hunger and disease - the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II.
The IDPs, mainly ethnic Ngiti, began arriving in Bukiringi in early June after receiving UN assurances about their safety. UN peace-keepers delivered a first shipment of aid to them by helicopter on 8 June.
International concern for them had mounted in May when DRC government forces, backed by UN peace-keepers, launched a successful offensive to capture the militia stronghold of Tchei. Thousands fled the town and UNHCR decided to start a protection programme amid reports that militias were forcing 10,000 civilians to stay with them.
Life on the run has become the norm for many communities in Ituri, where various militia groups have won a reputation for harassing and abusing civilians. The elderly and weak are often left behind as fighting forces another move in the harsh terrain.
The difference between refugees - those who have crossed an international border to escape violence and persecution in their homeland - and IDPs blurs in this volatile corner of Africa. UNHCR’s humanitarian protection effort in Ituri is part of its expanded global role in caring for IDPs, who often face the same problems as refugees.