Photo: Interethnic violence has ravaged Ituri Province in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since December 2108, generating significant population movements within the province, and towards neighbouring Uganda. Credit: UNICEF/Madjiangar - Photo: 2019

DR Congo Violence Survivors Highlight Armed Militia Brutality

By Kwame Buist

GENEVA (IDN) – Two months since hundreds of thousands of people fled violence in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), UN humanitarians have warned that armed militia continue to make their safe return impossible.

Briefing journalists in Geneva on August 16, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Babar Baloch said that staff had heard numerous testimonies from people whose family members had been killed in Ituri province. 

Severe underfunding for aid work and insecurity involving the Hema and Lendu groups have meant that increasing numbers are vulnerable and unable even to go home to pick up essentials, he added. 

“These people are not even able to return,” Baloch said. “Many of them have reported people who have tried – or relatives who have tried – to return to their villages and to their homes have been reportedly attacked and killed.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the mass displacement of people “on the run” has also hindered efforts to tackle the year-old Ebola virus outbreak. 

Latest data from the UN health agency published August 15 indicated a total of 2,842 Ebola infections and 1,905 deaths in DRC’s Ituri and Nord Kivu provinces, with an overall fatality rate of 67 percent. 

“The (Ebola) treatment centres are operational and the scenario of people – a highly mobile population on the run – is something that has been underlying in this response since the beginning, which is why it is so difficult to end it,” said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier. 

The Hema and Lendu communities have a history of extreme violence in Ituri.  

In late June, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported attacks on “multiple villages” in Djugu and Mahagi territories, where investigators found evidence of several massacres where some victims had been beheaded. 

Information gathered by the United Nations “seems to indicate that despite the attackers reportedly belong to one community, and the victims to others, there appear to be additional political and economic motives underlying the assaults”, OHCHR said in a statement at the time. 

In the latest violence, attacks and counter-attacks forced people to flee Djugu territory, UNHCR said, adding that both communities had reportedly formed self-defence groups and carried out revenge killings. 

“In the last three weeks of June alone, more than 145,000 newly displaced people sought safety and assistance in the displacement sites across Ituri, while 215,000 were estimated to have fled to the neighbouring areas,” Baloch said, in line with UNHCR’s earlier statements highlighting widespread displacement in late 2017 and early 2018 in three of Ituri’s five administrative territories: Djugu, Mahagi and Irumu.  

“Difficulties with access in some places and the large area from which people have fled means the real figure is difficult to verify,” the UNHCR official warned. “Thousands have continued to flee since, although at lower rates.”

While most of the displaced have found shelter with host communities, tens of thousands have been forced to find shelter where they can.

“Fear and squalor” prevail in displacement camps, Baloch insisted, adding that many “are forced to sleep in the open”. 

In Drodro, a relatively small town that has seen its population triple in just a few weeks, “local schools and churches have transformed into large, squalid dormitories,” he said, noting that UNHCR has built emergency hangars for those sleeping in the open, and individual shelters for the most vulnerable. 

Funding for this humanitarian crisis remains critically low, however, and UNHCR is appealing to the international community to come forward with further funding and allow humanitarian organisations to provide basic, life-saving assistance.  

So far this year, UNHCR has received only 32 percent of the 150 million dollars needed for its operations.

At the beginning of August, the UN Security Council had expressed grave concern about the current Ebola virus outbreak in DRC, stressing the urgency of broad cooperation in the response given that “the disease could spread rapidly, including to neighbouring countries, possibly having serious humanitarian consequences and impacting regional stability”.

In a statement tabled August 2 by Jacek Czaputowicz, Foreign Minister of Poland, which holds the Security Council’s presidency for the month of August, the 15-member body emphasised the need for continued cooperation and coordination with the DRC Government, as well as with the States in the region, to address the Ebola outbreak. 

Noting “the challenging operating environment”, the Council reiterated its appreciation for the efforts of the Government, WHO and other UN agencies, the UN Organization Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), the African Union, humanitarian organisations, international donors and all supporting the response to contain the disease and treat Ebola patients. 

The Council also stressed the need for government and civil society in affected and at-risk countries “to work urgently with relevant partners” to improve their preparedness for preventing, detecting and responding to possible cases, as well as to implement optimal vaccine strategies that have maximum impact on curtailing the outbreak.  

Reiterating their serious concern regarding the security situation in the areas affected by the Ebola outbreak, particularly attacks on humanitarian and medical personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, “which is severely hampering the response efforts and facilitating the spread of the virus in the DRC and the wider region,” Security Council members called for an immediate cessation of hostilities by all armed groups.

“The Security Council condemns in the strongest terms all attacks against and threats intentionally directed against medical personnel,” said the statement, which also spotlighted the Council’s “demand that safe and unhindered access be ensured for humanitarian and medical personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties.”

Finally, the Council stressed the importance of strengthening international support and engagement, “including full and timely financial contributions to the response, technical assistance, scientific cooperation and human resources to bring the disease permanently and successfully under control.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 August 2019]

Photo: Interethnic violence has ravaged Ituri Province in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since December 2108, generating significant population movements within the province, and towards neighbouring Uganda. Credit: UNICEF/Madjiangar

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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