UNHCR concerned for 50,000 displaced people in Congo after camps reportedly emptied

The UN refugee agency is investigating reports that several camps for internally displaced people near Goma in eastern DRC have been forcibly emptied, and High Commissioner António Guterres appealed to all sides in the conflict to respect humanitarian principles.

Several of the tens of thousands who have fled fighting in eastern Congo head toward the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, with scant possessions on their backs.   © MONUC/Marie Frechon

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 31 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said Friday it has received disturbing reports that several camps for internally displaced people near the North Kivu town of Rutshuru, about 90 kilometres north of Goma in eastern DRC, have been forcibly emptied, looted and burned.

"We're in the process of trying to verify these reports, which we received from some of our humanitarian partners," UNHCR Chief Spokesman Ron Redmond told journalists in Geneva. "We are extremely concerned about the fate of some 50,000 displaced people living in these camps, which include the UNHCR-administered sites of Dumez, Nyongera and Kasasa as well as several makeshift settlements."

The area around Rutshuru, where UNHCR has an office, has been the scene of fighting in recent weeks and is now under rebel control. Redmond said lack of security is hampering the agency's efforts to verify the reports.

The reports come as a tense ceasefire holds in the eastern city of Goma, where tens of thousands have fled as rebels advanced. Rebel leader Gen. Laurent Nkunda halted his forces 15 km from Goma, provincial capital of North Kivu, and declared the ceasefire late on Wednesday.

High Commissioner António Guterres again appealed to all sides in the conflict to respect humanitarian principles and to ensure the safety of civilians and those trying to help them.

"Hundreds of thousands of people who have already suffered far too much are in danger and in desperate need of help," Guterres said Friday. "As humanitarians, our job is to get life-saving assistance to them as quickly as possible. We are trying to do this in an extremely volatile environment characterized by reported widespread human rights abuses and general lawlessness. While we will do everything we can to help the innocent victims, the solution has to be political and we appeal to all sides to bring this conflict to an end."

UNHCR staff in Goma this morning reported the situation calm but tense on Friday morning. The UNHCR office is open and staff are working, but security restrictions on movement remain tight.

Many Congolese fleeing the fighting north of Goma have headed towards Uganda looking for safety. Since the latest round of fighting started in August more than 8,500 refugees crossed the border into Uganda - some 2,500 of them over the past three days, according to reports from a UNHCR team at the border in Busanza, Uganda. Some 600 refugees arrived just on Friday morning. Many said they had walked for more than 20 hours from the Rugarama area in Congo, some 17 kms from the Uganda border.

Most of Congolese refugees in Uganda are dispersed in a dozen villages along the border with the DRC. They are accommodated by host families, friends or relatives.

"Their condition is presently good, but we fear that the situation could soon deteriorate if medical, water and sanitation facilities are unable to cope with rapidly increasing needs," Redmond said. "Logistics are difficult in this remote area. In addition, food supplies in this part of Uganda generally depend on local food imports from the neighbouring DRC."

UNHCR Uganda is working on setting up of a small transit centre in Kisoro town for Congolese refugees willing to move to Nakivale refugee settlement, some 350 kilometres inside Uganda. So far, more than 2,000 newly arrived refugees from the DRC have found shelter and assistance there.

"It's clear that we are going to require more funding to cope with the new needs," Redmond said. "We need to rapidly distribute plastic tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, buckets, mosquito nets, kitchens sets and sanitary material and it appears we'll have to set up new sites for displaced people as well as existing camps in North Kivu."

There are 16 UNHCR-assisted sites in North Kivu sheltering some 100,000 people, plus more than 40 makeshift encampments housing tens of thousands of civilians. Altogether, there are more than one million internally displaced people in North Kivu.