NEW YORK, USA, 14 November 2008 - Continued fighting in North Kivu province, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, is placing children at risk of abuse and exploitation by armed groups, according to UNICEF representatives in Goma.
Throughout the region, reports of forced recruitment are on the rise, and displaced children are especially vulnerable.
Shooting between government troops and rebels broke out again today, only a few kilometres from Goma, and the situation remains tense for the tens of thousands of displaced Congolese living in settlements on the city's outskirts.
UNICEF and its partners are in the process of vaccinating 13,000 children for measles and polio, trucking in clean water, and providing essential survival kits. The kits include blankets, plastic sheets, clothes and mosquito nets.
According to UNICEF Communications Specialist Jaya Murthy, the fighting is putting continued aid distribution at risk. The rebel advance is also causing more displacement in other parts of the province.
"There's been insecurity in Kanyabayonga for the last four days, mostly due to pillaging by the national army," Mr. Murthy said. As the rebels march on Kanyabayonga, he added, "we have reports now that at least 35,000 people from the area are moving further north."
One of the primary concerns for UNICEF has become forced recruitment of men and boys into the armed groups.
"We've received unconfirmed reports that in the Kitchanga area, 500 people have been recruited in the last several days," Mr. Murthy noted. "We know that armed groups are actively recruiting and they're actively seeking out people to bolster their forces." The recruits reportedly have ranged in age from boys of 14 to men as old as 40.
The longer children remain displaced, the greater the risk that they will be left unprotected. "We know that people in flight are extremely vulnerable because they're displaced from their homes, they don't have the protection of their communities, the protection of the schools - and they're out in the open," Mr. Murthy said.
UNICEF and its partners have also seen an increase of children who are separated from their parents in the chaos of flight during fighting.
"In-flight children are continuing to be separated from their families, so those children are even more vulnerable to predators, to being recruited, to being possibly raped and exploited," Mr. Murthy said.
UNICEF continues to work to identify unaccompanied children and find their relatives; to date, 17 out of at least 152 have been re-united with their families.
Over 5 million people are thought to have died in the Congolese conflict since it began in 1996, mostly through preventable disease and malnutrition. UNICEF's mission in DR Congo is one of its largest in the world.