An upsurge in fighting between Government forces, renegade troops and rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is hampering efforts to deliver food aid to tens of thousands of people driven from their homes, United Nations agencies reported today.
At the same time, a shortage of funds is aggravating the situation, with supplies of food aid fast running out.
“This is a real and worsening crisis,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) Deputy Country Director Claude Jibidar said. “The fighting is uprooting more people every day and making it ever harder for WFP to reach them with the assistance they urgently need. We need at least $12 million to buy more food in the region and move it in fast.”
New arrivals streaming into camps for the displaced near Goma, capital of North Kivu province, are being registered for emergency food rations, amid reports that 40,000 people have fled the violence in recent days, in addition to 200,000 people displaced in the region since last December, WFP reported.
“It is neither normal nor acceptable that you have to live this way,” Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told the displaced people at one of the camps, Mugunga, adding that on his return to New York he would address the UN Security Council on the situation.
Thousands of people have moved towards Goma from the town of Sake, where entire families have fled fighting. Most of them had no time to collect any belongings or food from their homes. The fighting is restricting humanitarian access and food deliveries to areas beyond Goma. Roads are unsafe, and on Wednesday a UN helicopter airlifting WFP food to Masisi District had to turn back because of the conflict.
“We again urge all parties to the conflict in North Kivu to refrain from attacks on the civilian population and on the displaced in particular,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva, noting that up to 35,000 Congolese spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights in neighbouring Uganda to escape the fighting.
During the day, most of the men have been crossing back into the DRC to check on their properties, leaving behind 12,000 to 15,000 women and children. Nearly all of them are staying with Congolese relatives and friends living in the Ugandan town of Bunagana.
“In screening new arrivals, UNHCR and its NGO (non-governmental organization) partner have identified a number of rape and torture victims. Our teams also received reports of killings of civilians,” Mr. Redmond said. “We are still hoping that negotiations to resolve the underlying causes of the conflict can resume, preventing further displacement and deterioration of an already devastating humanitarian situation.”
Both UN agencies reported that thousands of people have moved towards Goma from the town of Sake, where entire families have fled fighting. Most of them had no time to collect any belongings or food from their homes. Columns of displaced are heading towards Muganga camp for internally displaced people, some 15 kilometres from Goma, and towards Goma itself. There are several camps and makeshift sites in the Mugunga area hosting at least 35,000 people, and the numbers continue to rise daily.
“The conditions are desperate, with the displaced sheltering in flimsy huts made of leaves and sticks, in overcrowded school buildings and under the open sky,” Mr. Redmond said.
“Due to increasingly difficult and limited access in the region, we fear that the known displacement is only the tip of the iceberg.”
Recent nutrition assessments by WFP partners in some of the worst affected areas have uncovered a worrying increase in malnutrition, with rates of acute malnutrition in some cases reaching 17 per cent – beyond the emergency threshold.
“WFP has moved rapidly to provide life-saving support to civilians caught up in the latest fighting,” Mr. Jibidar said. “Our supplies in the East are running alarmingly low, but this operation is an absolute and immediate priority. The people of North Kivu have already suffered far too much.”
A tripling in needs over the past year in eastern DRC has restricted WFP to the point that it is currently able to provide only half rations to 334,000 mostly displaced people across the region, which remains the most violent area of the vast country, where the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) has overseen the transition from a six-year civil war to gradual stabilization elsewhere.
The war cost 4 million lives in fighting and attendant hunger and disease, widely considered the most lethal conflict in the world since World War II. Last year the DRC held its first democratic elections in over four decades, the largest and most complex polls the UN has ever helped to organize.