NEW YORK, USA, 6 November 2008 - Continued violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo is seriously hampering humanitarian agencies from reaching more than 1 million displaced people in the region.
In spite of a rebel ceasefire, fighting flared up again in North Kivu province over the last two days between government troops, their allied militias and the rebels. More than 250,000 people have been forced to flee fighting that began in late August - more than 100,000 of them in the last six days.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is in Nairobi for a regional summit on the crisis, has registered his concern about the ongoing violence. In a statement, Mr. Ban urged all armed groups "to avoid activities that result in the further displacement and suffering of the civilian population."
In spite of the fighting, UNICEF and other humanitarian groups are preparing a massive aid response to those displaced by conflict.
Earlier this week, at one site where 50,000 people sought refuge from the recent fighting, UNICEF and its partners were able to ship in water, a week's worth of medical supplies and about 15,000 biscuits for children. According to UNICEF Communications Specialist Jaya Murthy in Goma, the distribution of food among the displaced nearly caused a riot. Many had not eaten for days.
"When we carried out our distribution, it was a desperate situation," said Mr. Murthy. "People came and crowded around our sites and were virtually trying to barge in to get the assistance. These were just biscuits [that we were distributing]. So this shows the desperation.
"We know that most of them have had very little to nothing to eat, so they're absolutely starving," he said.
One displaced man, Rumanyo Aganie, who fled a recent rebel advance, showed a medical document that said his 16-year-old daughter had been raped while trying to collect food from fields near their settlement. "If she had had enough to eat, she wouldn't have been raped," he said.
"The majority of people in North Kivu are farmers," noted Mr. Murthy. "Now when they're displaced, they don't have access to those farms so they have absolutely no means. They have no food to feed their families and they don't have money to buy food."
A history of abuse and violence
When fighting takes place near a village, families are often forced to flee in different directions, which leaves children vulnerable to a number of troubles.
"We have a history here in DRC, unfortunately, of massive abuse, exploitation, violence and recruitment of children into armed groups," said Mr. Murthy. "We've had limited access to many areas of North Kivu. We've had reports that children are separated from their families. We're extremely concerned about the welfare and the well-being of these children."
Over 5 million people are thought to have died in the Congolese conflict since it began in 1996, mostly through preventable disease and starvation. UNICEF's mission in Congo is one of its largest in the world.