DR Congo: UN refugee chief urges end to fighting displacing hundreds of thousands
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called for an end to fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and pledged to help improve conditions in camps there for tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“We know how much you have suffered. Members of your families have been killed, your homes have been burned and you have lost your harvest,” he told IDPs gathered in a makeshift social hall in Buhimba, one of five sites hosting more than 40,000 IDPs near the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma.
Since August, some 170,000 people have been forced out of their homes in North Kivu by fighting between Government troops and rebels allied to the dissident army general, Laurent Nkunda. Over the last year, a mix of conflict, military build-up and spiralling lawlessness has displaced 400,000 people in the province – the worst displacement since the end of the civil war in 2003.
In total, there are an estimated 800,000 displaced people in the province, including those uprooted by previous conflicts. Many people have found shelter in camps west of Goma as well as some 70 kilometres to the north around the town of Rutshuru, and Mr. Guterres visited both areas in a tour that ended yesterday.
“UNHCR and other partners will do our best to improve conditions in these camps,” he told hundreds of IDPs in an improvised community centre in Kisasa, near Rutshuru. “But we do not want camps to be a permanent residence for you. It is never good to live in camps.”
In Kisasa, a camp of some 5,000 IDPs, a one-eyed woman stepped forward and picked up the microphone. “I was not born with one eye. But the rebels attacked us one night, tied us up and beat us up. They gouged out my eye and raped me,” she told a shocked Mr. Guterres.
A middle-aged woman in Buhimba camp begged him to help her people return home. “Plead with our leaders to see our suffering. We are tired, we are tired – we plead with you to help us to return home,” she cried. A young man in the packed social hall told how they had fled into the forest to escape forced recruitment by rebels. “But life in the camp is nothing but suffering,” he added.
Scores of others related their suffering at the hands of armed men in their villages and the harsh life in camps, where they said there was insufficient food, water or plastic sheeting to protect their flimsy shacks. There were no maternity clinics, no schools, no means of livelihood, they said, adding that armed men roamed freely in the camps and harassed people.
“We fled from different directions and have found ourselves here [in Buhimba]. But we fear that the same person we fled from is going to follow us here,” an elderly man lamented, referring to Gen. Nkunda. “Where must we go to be safe? Where is the end for us?”
At a press conference in Goma on Sunday morning, Mr. Guterres said it was unacceptable that armed men were entering IDP camps and called on all sides to respect the civilian character of these sites.
He returned to the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, on Sunday afternoon and is expected to meet with DRC President Joseph Kabila and senior Government ministers today before returning to Geneva.