GOMA, Congo, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Fighting in eastern Congo has turned a breadbasket into a hunger zone where hundreds of thousands of people chased from their lush fields now rely on imported food, U.N. food agency WFP said.
Malnutrition rates in Rutshuru, which has seen weeks of fighting between government soldiers and dissident Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda's rebels, are almost double emergency thresholds and aid workers are battling insecurity to deliver rations. The latest wave of fighting has worsened a humanitarian disaster that began in the 1990s.
Over 5 million people have died since Congo's last war began in 1998, more than in any conflict since World War Two and nearly all from war-related hunger and disease.
"Rutshuru is the breadbasket of North Kivu," Marcus Prior told Reuters late on Wednesday. "In what can look like the land of plenty, there is still an enormous need for food."
Rutshuru, the largest territory in North Kivu province, has ample rain and swathes of fertile fields where maize, bananas, tomatoes and onions grow easily on the black volcanic soil.
But it has endured years of violence.
First came millions of Rwandan refugees in 1994 after the rout of Rwandan Hutu forces behind the genocide of Tutsis. War followed humanitarian disaster when Rwanda's Tutsi-led army chased the Hutu forces and overthrew Congo's regime.
The latest war officially ended in 2003, but still simmers.
"Rutshuru has been a war zone for more than a decade," Prior said. "Most people have missed three or four harvests in succession. Market systems have broken down, people have been unable to plant their fields because of the conflict."
The current fighting, which began when a peace deal between Nkunda's rebels and the army collapsed in August, has displaced some 250,000 people, bringing to 1 million the number of people in North Kivu who have fled their homes in two years.
Nkunda initially said he was defending fellow Tutsis against attacks by the Hutu rebels. But he has since widened his objectives to overthrowing President Joseph Kabila unless he agrees to direct negotiations.
Civilians are equally wary of government forces, which are weak, ill-disciplined and prone to looting and attacks.
As a result, many in Congo's east fear anyone with a gun. While some of the displaced live in camps, many have just melted into the thick bush, living off what they can find.
"Rutshuru has had some of the highest malnutrition rates, up to 17.5 percent global acute malnutrition. The emergency (level) is 10 percent," Prior said.
"There were at least 60,000 displaced people living in and around Rutshuru town alone who were almost completely dependent on outside assistance for their food needs and we need to make sure that we reach them as a matter of urgency," he said.
Prevented from delivering food for days by insecurity, WFP trucked about a tonne of high energy biscuits into rebel-held territory near Rutshuru this week to reduce child malnutrition.
But aid workers often struggle to find the displaced.
Rutshuru has been the centre of some of the fiercest combat and human rights researchers say at least 50 civilians were killed in nearby Kiwanja last week, mostly in reprisal attacks.
During lulls in the violence, some people with farms nearby have been able to bring fresh food to the market, but is beyond the means of most people, who fled with few belongings.
"There is food in the market, but we don't have money to buy it. We can't go home and we have nothing to eat," said Domitira Mbonigaba N'Bahunde, one of about 5,000 people squatting under plastic sheeting set up near a U.N. base in Kiwanja.
"I don't know what to do. We need help," she added.
(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: http://africa.reuters.com)
(Additional reporting by Finbarr O'Reilly in Kiwanja; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Alistair Thomson)
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