The United Nations refugee chief today starts a five-day visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where tens of thousands of people are on the move again in the volatile east of the country after some of the worst fighting since the civil war ended in 2003.
António Guterres is expected to fly over the conflict zone in North Kivu province and assess UN operations there, according to a press release issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva.
An estimated 800,000 Congolese are now internally displaced within North Kivu, including 170,000 who have been forced to flee in only the past four months since fighting escalated between Government forces (known as FARDC), renegade troops loyal to General Laurent Nkunda and rebels.
The security situation is so difficult that UNHCR teams and other relief workers are unable to reach many areas of North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda in the far east of the vast DRC.
Yesterday Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement through his spokesperson expressing alarm at the intense fighting and its impact on civilians.
“The United Nations is working closely with the Government of the DRC and with others to help bring peace and security to this troubled region,” the statement noted. “The Secretary-General calls on the forces of Laurent Nkunda to lay down their arms.”
More than 4,500 blue helmets with the UN peacekeeping mission to the DRC (known by its French acronym MONUC) have been deployed to North Kivu to help ensure the defence of Goma, the provincial capital, and the key town of Saké.
Before leaving Geneva, Mr. Guterres said he was “deeply concerned by the suffering of the people and the terrible humanitarian situation they are facing, made even worse by this fresh round of fighting. I also want to visit our staff who are working under great pressure and security constraints to provide those displaced with the assistance and protection they badly need.”
The High Commissioner is scheduled to arrive tonight in Kinshasa, the DRC capital, where he will hold talks tomorrow with President Laurent Kabila. Then he is slated to head to Goma, where he will meet with local authorities, MONUC officials, UN agencies and partner humanitarian organizations. He will also visit areas where the displaced are sheltering, including camps and makeshift sites that are already reaching full capacity.
The eastern DRC remains the most violent region in the country, where MONUC has otherwise 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.