In recent weeks, more than 64,000 Congolese have fled renewed fighting in the DRC's northeastern North Kivu province, where there is also widespread looting of villages and killing of civilians. The UN refugee agency urgently deployed rapid monitoring teams to hotspots in the area early March in an attempt to prevent further human rights abuses and forced displacement.
"We ask the government and Congolese military to make the protection of civilians in military operations a priority," said Ralf Gruenert, UNHCR's Deputy Representative for Protection in DRC. "The local population in North Kivu is the main victim of the current military confrontations," he added.
UNHCR has carried out 25 monitoring missions finding fresh and massive internal displacement in the region as well as serious human rights violations such as killings, looting and disappearances.
Since early 2007, violent clashes and inter-ethnic tensions in North Kivu intensified simultaneously with reintegration of renegade brigades into the government army. The fresh round of fighting between the new brigades and militia groups in North Kivu started almost immediately, bringing further misery to the local population.
"The local population is accused of collaboration with the different militia groups. This is why civilians are directly targeted. Looting is common," says UNHCR's Goma-based protection officer Barbara Colzi.
Some of the newly displaced have gathered in makeshift camps some 100 kilometres north-east of Goma, while thousands of others are still living in the bush, hiding during the day and returning to their fields at night. Civilians are fleeing from atrocities and direct attacks by soldiers, but in many cases they are also leaving their homes in fear of fighting.
UNHCR, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUC and other humanitarian groups are trying to help those suffering from the ongoing military operations.
"Along the Kiwanja-Nyamilima axis, most villages are completely deserted. People are concentrating in Kisharu as there they find the protection from mobile teams of UN peacekeeping forces, which MONUC recently deployed to secure and stabilise the area," says Colzi. Access for humanitarian workers to many areas in the province remains a problem, she added.
The UN's World Food Programme has distributed more than 1,000 metric tons of food to 68,000 displaced people in North Kivu.
The risk of further displacement remains high. There are currently 1.1 million Congolese displaced in the country, with some 500,000 Congolese displaced during 2006.
By Jens Hesemann in Kinshasa, DRC