Eastern Congo's Beni region rocked by killings, rights abuses and fear

UNHCR calls for humanitarian access to the Beni area of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo amid a deteriorating security and human rights situation.

Displaced people in North Kivu. Many parts of province have been relatively quiet in the past two years, but UNHCR is concerned about violence in the Beni region.  © UNHCR/B.Sokol

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 19 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday called for humanitarian access to the Beni area of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo amid a deteriorating security and human rights situation for the civilian population.

"Multiple attacks over the last three months have caused widespread fear and displacement [in this area of North Kivu province]. We are appealing for humanitarian access to help people in distress," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.

"There are credible reports that at least 256 people, including children, have been killed in machete and axe attacks since October. New massacres by armed groups are reported every week," Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

He added that at least 52 people were slaughtered in villages near Oicha to the west of Beni on December 7-8, and a week later 19 more people were killed nearby. Violence has also spread northwards into Orientale province, where seven people were killed and their villages during the night of Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

The violence has caused spikes in displacement, both within Beni and the surrounding area. In all, around 88,000 people have been displaced. People have to live in schools and churches, or with host families. Leaflets threatening new attacks are terrifying the population and triggering further movements towards larger towns and cities.

"The survivors and the displaced live in a desperate situation and in constant fear. They remain at risk of new attacks and have had no respite for the past three months. They have little protection against violence and have received hardly any assistance," Edwards said.

People need shelter, basic aid items, clean drinking water and access to health services and schools. Aid projects have been suspended because of the deteriorating security situation. This is of particular concern in an area with a high prevalence of malaria, typhoid, anaemia, malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Edwards said UNHCR and its partners needed safe access to these areas to establish a humanitarian presence and to help the traumatized population. To date, it has been very challenging for aid organizations to reach Beni and other affected places, with the Congolese army restricting movement in these areas. In addition, people are unable to go to their farms and food prices are rising.

"We are concerned that this situation could result in rising levels of malnutrition and eventually in famine if the situation is not immediately addressed," Edwards said.

UNHCR called on the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to protect the civilian population in Beni and the surrounding areas and to allow humanitarian organizations into the affected areas. The refugee agency also urged the UN peacekeeping mission to increase its capacity to protect civilians in Beni and nearby villages and called on all sides to respect human rights.