Thousands of Congolese civilians are on the move in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) strife-torn North Kivu province, fleeing their homes amid reports of renewed fighting, cases of rape, and rising tensions between Government forces, renegade troops and rebel groups, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“We fear that the pursuit of a military solution to the problems in North Kivu would further worsen the province’s humanitarian crisis through the potential displacement of hundreds of thousands of additional Congolese civilians,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.
“We again call on all parties to the conflict in North Kivu to refrain from direct attacks and atrocities against the civilian population, and displaced people in particular.”
Voicing deep concern, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the Government and all local stakeholders to persevere in their efforts to bring about a peaceful solution.
A statement issued by his spokesperson said Mr. Ban was “very concerned by the impact of the fighting on local populations and calls on all parties to ensure the protection of the vulnerable. He urges all stakeholders in the region to focus on resolving the underlying causes of the crisis through dialogue,” it added.
In Kinshasa, the DRC capital, the top UN humanitarian relief official, Under-Secretary-General John Holmes, today discussed the situation with the country’s Foreign Minister, UN agencies and the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC).
UNHCR reported that over the weekend and yesterday an inter-agency team found large groups of newly displaced people making their way on foot from Rubaya and other Masisi villages towards the town of Sake and the nearby Mugunga site for internally displaced persons (IDPs), 15 kilometres west of Goma, North Kivu’s capital.
The newly displaced carried few belongings, mostly packed in bundles on their backs. Many said they left their homes fearing the ongoing military build-up in the area, although they had not witnessed direct fighting. Some have reported cases of rape and killings of civilians by armed men, Mr. Redmond said.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that overall more than 1 million people in the DRC have been uprooted due to armed confrontations and the presence of armed groups. The majority are in North Kivu (640,000), South Kivu (266,000) and the north-eastern district of Ituri (152,000). Since the beginning of the year, up to 224,000 people have been displaced in North Kivu.
Eastern DRC remains the most violent region in the vast country, where MONUC has overseen the transition from a six-year civil war that cost 4 million lives in fighting and attendant hunger and disease – widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II – to gradual stabilization, culminating in the first democratic elections in over four decades last year, the largest and most complex polls the UN has ever helped to organize.
UNHCR is discussing the possibility of a new displacement site near Mugunga, which currently has as many as 18,000 people. On Friday, for example, at a school near Mugunga was reported to hold 600 IDPs seeking shelter in over-crowded conditions. “Our team reports there are now more than 2,500 people there,” Mr. Redmond said.
“Unaccompanied children are also among the displaced, as well as parents desperately looking for their children,” he added.
“The full scale of displacement is difficult to gauge as we and other humanitarian agencies face increasingly limited access to many areas in Masisi and Rutshuru districts. We fear there may be many more in areas we cannot reach. A growing number of Congolese are seeking shelter at more than 20 spontaneous IDP sites scattered across the province.”
In a related development, some 10,000 Congolese crossed into Uganda’s Kisoro district yesterday evening, saying they were fleeing fighting between the DRC military and renegade troops. By this morning, the majority had already begun returning home. Due to general insecurity in North Kivu, especially at night, such rapid population movements are relatively frequent.