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DRC: people flee as fighting continues

Briefing notes

DRC: people flee as fighting continues

10 February 2006

Thousands of people are being forced to flee their homes in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as fighting continues between the Congolese army and dissident forces in North Kivu. Thousands of Congolese have fled to neighbouring Uganda since the fighting started in mid-January. In the space of a few days around 20 January, 20,000 people crossed the border into Uganda. Most of them returned to the DRC after a few days, but some 3,000 have asked for asylum in Uganda and have been moved to permanent settlements further away from the border.

The influx continues. On Wednesday night, Ugandan authorities informed us that some 2,000 Congolese had just arrived in the border district of Kisoro, about 450 kilometres south-west of Kampala. The group went back to the DRC the next morning, following a pattern that we have seen develop in the past few weeks, with many people seeking safety for the night in Uganda and returning to DRC by day.

However, the vast majority of the civilian population affected by the fighting is not crossing the border. Instead, thousands of people are being displaced within North Kivu itself. UNHCR staff on the ground say that the Kiberezi area, which has seen some of the worst fighting, is now almost empty. Its normal population is about 40,000, but there are now only about 2,000 people remaining in the area. Some 30,000 of them have fled to the neighbouring town of Kanyabayonga. Others are hiding in surrounding hills and forests, surviving in the bush with no shelter, water or food, and no possibility of getting any assistance. We are extremely concerned about the fate of these people in particular.

The situation in Kiberezi is nothing short of a humanitarian tragedy. Displaced people are recounting many atrocities committed against civilians, including killings, widespread looting and many cases of sexual violence. On Wednesday, a UNHCR truck evacuated seven seriously ill women and children out of Kiberezi for treatment in Kanyabayonga. Yesterday (Thursday), the truck went back to Kiberezi to evacuate eight people, including a 13-year-old, who had been raped and were in need of medical attention.

The displaced people fear the violence and insecurity will continue, but say they want to go back to Kiberezi, where at least some food is available. This is not the case right now in Kanyabayonga, let alone in the bush.

While the situation in North Kivu is extremely worrisome, other parts of eastern DRC are also affected. In Katanga province, further to the south, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by continuing violence. Atrocities against civilians, including rapes, murders and house-burning have also been reported.

Under a UN plan to strengthen protection and assistance to internally displaced people (IDPs), UNHCR is in the process of deploying staff to eastern DRC to help coordinate the IDP work of UN agencies, NGOs and the Congolese government. UNHCR IDP protection staff are already in place in South Kivu and Katanga, and we will be establishing a presence in Ituri and North Kivu. UNHCR's deputy representative in the DRC is currently in North Kivu to assess what can be done within this UN collaborative approach to improve the human rights situation for IDPs there. At least 1.7 million people are internally displaced within DRC.

The United Nations has assigned UNHCR sectoral responsibility for IDP protection, camp coordination and management, and emergency shelter in displacement situations caused by conflict. Within this collaborative approach, UNHCR is currently working on three IDP pilot projects - in the DRC, in Uganda and in Liberia, where it already has a significant protection role. Traditionally, the world's millions of IDPs have been one of the most vulnerable groups in situations of war and conflict since they do not come under the specific mandate of any international body.