More than 15,000 Congolese have fled to South Sudan since the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) began launching attacks in north-east Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“It is critical to move all of these refuges away from border areas both for security reasons and to facilitate distribution of aid,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva. “Access to the refugees will soon become impossible when the seasonal rains begin in April and roads become impassable.”
The LRA, which has been accused of committing atrocities including mutilations and the recruitment of child soldiers in its long fight in northern Uganda, has spilled over into southern Sudan and north-east DRC, where Congolese, Ugandan and Sudanese forces have launched a joint operation to oust them and force them to accept a peace agreement.
Mr. Redmond said refugees interviewed in Lasu, in Sudan’s Central Equatoria State, reported that the DRC town of Aba, with an estimated population of 100,000, was deserted following an LRA attack. Unconfirmed reports from local residents indicate that the LRA is also active in South Sudan, looting property and abducting 21 people in a village near Lasu.
The 6,000 refugees in Lasu are generally reported to be in good health but are in need of emergency aid, living in the open, with only one well to share with the local population and no food. There are dozens of unaccompanied and separated children, split from their parents during flight, Mr. Redmond said. Aid agencies are coordinating assistance, including the provision of clean water and the emergency construction of latrines.
In South Sudan's Western Equatoria State the registered population of Congolese refugees who fled LRA attacks in the Dungu area of north-western DRC in January has reached over 9,100.
UN humanitarian chief John Holmes, briefing the Security Council today on his recent visit to DRC, said he was “shaken” by the accounts he heard from local civilians who had been subjected to “horrific and unprovoked” attacks by the LRA.
“The casual brutality, total disregard for human life, and the treatment of women and children in particular, are appalling even for those used to the depredations of the LRA in so many places in the last 20 years,” the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Council.
While UN agencies and their partners are working – with the authorities, military forces in the area and MONUC – to expand humanitarian aid and step up efforts to protect the local population, they are facing several constraints.
These include the huge 40,000 square kilometre area where the LRA is hiding, their dispersal into several groups, the difficult terrain and isolated location, chronic lack of infrastructure, and the threat still posed by the rebels, including on major roads, noted Mr. Holmes.
Further south in eastern DRC, UNHCR reported that an increasing numbers of Rwandan civilians are approaching the agency for assistance in repatriating following a new escalation of violence sparked by the launch of a joint Rwandan/DRC offensive against the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
In the first six weeks of this year, UNHCR assisted the return of 3,000 Rwandans, mainly women and children, compared to 8,000 Rwandans who returned voluntarily during the whole of last year. “We expect the return of thousands more Rwandan civilians, some of whom fled to the DRC after the Rwandan genocide in 1994,” Mr. Redmond said.
“Some say they were told by their leaders it is time to return home. Others say they feared being caught in crossfire. They also fear reprisals by the FDLR rebels. Many said their host Congolese families had run out of resources and were asking them to return to their country.”
UNHCR has increased its fleet of trucks and set up 13 assembly points in North and South Kivu provinces to transport the Rwandans to repatriation transit centres where they receive an aid package of a one-month food ration and various other items.
Former FDLR combatants wanting repatriation are presenting themselves to the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC (MONUC) that is responsible for their disarmament, demobilisation, repatriation, reinsertion, and reintegration.
Meanwhile, a steady flow of Congolese refugees is crossing into Uganda from North Kivu. With some 180 new arrivals a day, UNHCR has registered nearly 7,000 since the start of the year. According to latest estimates, some 47,000 Congolese refugees have crossed into Uganda since new fighting among the DRC army and various groups broke out in North Kivu in August.