The UN refugee agency has become the latest aid organisation to voice its alarm over rising violence in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis, almost 7,000 people have crossed to neighbouring Burundi and 1,200 into Tanzania in the past week, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Refugees we have spoken to say they fled forced recruitment, direct violence and other abuses by armed groups. Others say they fled in anticipation of military operations and out of fear,” said spokesperson Babar Baloch.
- Clockwise from top left: Maope, eight, eats the day’s only meal along with her grandmother and neighbours at the Katanika displacement settlement, located just outside Kalemie town in Tanganyika; dried maize hangs from the ceiling of a shelter; Jawaida, 12, is seen with a friend in the hilltop village of Mpati; Maope and company eat
Earlier this week, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation described “alarming food insecurity” in the country, sparked by an extension of conflict into areas previously considered stable, such as the provinces of Kasai and Tanganyika.
Last month, Jean-Philippe Chauzy, DRC’s chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said the humanitarian crisis in DRC was at “breaking point” amid a massive escalation of inter-ethnic conflict and widespread insecurity.
The number of people coping with extreme hunger has risen by 2 million over the past six months, reaching 7.7 million – about 10% of the population. More than 4 million children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition, said the agencies.
“The humanitarian situation in the DRC is at breaking point, as is our capacity to respond to extremely limited funding,” said Chauzy. “The stories that Congolese who have been forced from their homes are telling are bone-chilling. They have been through so much already – torture, rape and murder of their loved ones. We cannot stand idly by as they suffer in silence.”
As fighting between militias in the south and east of the country has intensified, thousands of people have died and millions more have been forced from their homes. In December, 15 UN personnel were killed by militants in the eastern province of North Kivu, in what UN secretary general António Guterres called “the worst attack on UN peacekeepers in the organisation’s recent history”.
There has been significant unrest since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his mandate in December, with scores of people killed in demonstrations against his continued rule in Kinshasa, the capital, and beyond.
The conflict in DRC has forced more than 1.3 million people to flee their homes, 800,000 of them children, leaving the country with the highest number of displaced people in Africa. Among a population of 79 million people, 4.5 million have been forced from their homes, a significant number of whom have been hosted by local families and communities, putting further strain on limited resources.
The majority of newly displaced people say food is their biggest need, but in some areas many have yet to receive humanitarian assistance due to lack of funding.
Support for the IOM’s appeal for DRC is at its lowest level in years. Only $3.5m of the $75m requested as part of an appeal launched in December has been received.
- Sango Feaza Sango, 20, with her two-year-old child Kambilo in the grounds of Glory primary school in Kalemie town. ‘We’re living like birds, she says. ‘Life is difficult here. It’s difficult to get to sleep thinking about the war’
Deadly floods and an outbreak of cholera, among various other health emergencies, have compounded the situation.
“Funding levels are at their lowest for many years, with DRC seeming to have ‘fallen off the map’ for many donors, at a time when we are facing vastly increased humanitarian need,” said Chauzy. “This is a worrying trend that we hope does not continue through 2018. Around the world, displaced people have similar needs, whether it is shelter, health or protection. We need to see similar levels of funding to other crises, ensuring the needs of displaced Congolese are met appropriately.”
- Displaced children in Mwaka village, Tanganyika province
In December, the IOM said the rise in sexual violence against women and girls was similar to the widespread targeting of vulnerable women and girls in the 1994-2003 conflict. Recent research by Unicef found evidence of children in eastern DRC being sexually abused and recruited to fight.
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