Hundreds of thousands of Congolese flee violence in Katanga province's triangle of death

Violence in the south-eastern province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes since the end of 2012, including 71,000 in the past three months.

Two men displaced by violence in northern Katanga sit beneath the makeshift shelter which is now their home. Access to food, shelter and basic services such as potable water, health care and education is a challenge for them and others in Katanga, where there are 600,000 internally displaced people, 400,000 of whom have fled their homes since 2012.  © UNHCR/B.Sokol

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 18 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Tuesday expressed deep concern about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

Violence in the south-eastern province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes since the end of 2012, bringing the total number of internally displaced people in the province to nearly 600,000. During the last three months alone, more than 71,000 people have been newly displaced.

In October, UNHCR registered 1,737 incidents in the territories of Kalemie and the so-called "triangle of death" between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto in northern Katanga. These included the looting and burning of houses, extortion, torture, forced labour and recruitment into armed groups, as well as sexual violence.

"We fear that this number of incidents could be significantly higher as insecurity and logistical challenges prevent our protection monitors from going to some areas," added UNHCR spokesperson Karin de Gruijl in Geneva. "During the first 10 months of 2014, a total of 15,873 incidents have been reported in Katanga, of which over 88 per cent (or 14,057) took place in these four territories

Sexual violence remains a serious concern. Between January and October, UNHCR protection monitors have helped 1,564 people who survived sexual violence and referred them to medical and other partners for help.

"However, as a result of the lack of access to the areas where survivors live and the fear of many of them to report sexual violence, we understand that many more cases are unreported. Due to a lack of funding and the limited capacity of organizations assisting rape survivors in Katanga, only a limited number of them have access to health care, psychosocial support and legal assistance," de Gruijl said.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services.

There are 28 sites hosting internally displaced people in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education.

Elders in Mukondo site say that 19 young children have died since their arrival in March, mainly because of diarrhoea, anaemia and malaria. The site hosts some 1,300 people, more than half of them under the age of 12 years. During that same period, nine women died while giving birth. The nearest health centre is 22 kilometres away.

The conflicts are taking place in the northern part of Katanga, one of the Congo's richest provinces in natural resources. While there have been long-lasting tensions between the two communities, violence between the Luba (or Bantu) and the Twa (or Pygmy) tribes flared up earlier this year.

Attacks on Twa communities by the secessionist Mai Mai Bataka Katanga militia and fighting with the army reignited after the Mai Mai group's leader escaped from prison in the provincial capital Lubumbashi in 2011. This has subjected the civilian population to extreme violence, including mass rape.

UNHCR believes that to stem the violence, there is a need to increase the presence of Congolese civil authorities in the affected areas and to look into peaceful solutions to resolve the conflict between the Luba and the Twa.

The rights of minorities and indigenous groups, in particular of the Twa community, should be recognized and protected. At the same time it is important to end impunity and to promote a programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration that assists former combatants to return to civilian life.

UNHCR is calling on the UN peace-keeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to reinforce its presence and technical capacity in northern Katanga to better protect the civilian population and prevent further human rights violations. Nearly 2.6 million people are internally displaced in the vast African country.

By Céline Schmitt in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo