Some 4,000 IDPs reach safety in north-east Democratic Republic of the Congo
BUNIA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 22 (UNHCR) - Some 4,000 displaced people have escaped the clutches of militias in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and reached the safety of Bukiringi, where they are receiving food and shelter from UNHCR partners.
Their numbers are expected to grow. Some who have reached sanctuary after walking for up to 80 km are still hiding in the nearby forest, naked and too ashamed to show themselves after ethnic Ngiti militiamen reportedly stripped fellow tribespeople trying to leave areas under their control.
The internally displaced people (IDPs) at Bukiringi, located in the vast Orientale province about 80 km south-west of the Ituri district capital Bunia, are in urgent need of food and clothing. They say they will not go back to their militia-controlled home areas, where they were virtual hostages.
"We have walked for days without knowing what we would find in Bukiringi," said an exhausted mother of two. "I am so relieved to see that the militia cannot come here and that there is food aid," she added.
"The Ituri population is tired of militia rule, even if the self-proclaimed commanders come from their community," said UNHCR Representative Eusèbe Hounsokou.
The displaced civilians, who are mainly ethnic Ngiti, began arriving in Bukiringi in early June after receiving UN assurances about their safety. UN peace-keepers delivered a first shipment of aid to them by helicopter on June 8.
International concern about their situation mounted in May when DRC government forces, backed by UN peace-keepers, launched a successful offensive to capture the militia stronghold of Tchei. Thousands fled the town and UNHCR decided to start a humanitarian protection programme amid reports that the militias were forcing some 10,000 civilians to stay with them.
Over several weeks, the UNHCR-led protection working group contacted leaders of the displaced communities and engaged in confidence-building efforts. These efforts, together with safety assurances, have persuaded some 4,000 people to move to areas under government control. Steps were also taken, in conjunction with humanitarian partners, to ensure delivery of food aid to the remote area.
Life on the run has become the norm for many communities in Ituri, where various militia groups have developed a reputation for harassing and abusing civilians. The elderly and weak are often left behind as the fighting forces another move in the harsh terrain.
"About two years ago, I crossed Lake Albert into Uganda when my village was attacked. I never lost hope to see my village again, so I returned," said an old man at the IDP settlement of Tchomia, some 30km east of Bunia on the lake. "Now you see where I am, living under plastic sheeting again in a place which is not mine."
The difference between refugees - those who have crossed an international border to escape violence and persecution in their homeland - and internally displaced people blurs in this volatile corner of Africa.
Some Congolese refugees cross into Uganda to escape escalations in the violence and then return home after a few days when the situation has calmed down. Many go home to look after their crops and then leave for their place of refuge at night, when it is more dangerous.
UNHCR's humanitarian protection effort in Ituri is part of its expanded global role in caring for internally displaced people, who often face the same problems as refugees.
By Jens Hesemann in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo