Uneasy calm in DR Congo refugee camps; UNHCR fears ethnic conflict may spread
KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 28 (UNHCR) - Some of the 17,000 Sudanese refugees displaced after recent fighting in Biringi settlement, north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), have started trickling back to the camp as the area calmed down over the weekend.
Ethnic clashes first started on Monday, October 21, between rebels of the Congolese Patriotic Union/Popular Rally (UPC-RP, believed to supporters of the Hema ethnic group) and ethnic Lendu militias in Biringi municipality, Ituri province. Biringi refugee settlement, located near the centre of the municipality, was overrun by the UPC-RP rebels, who caused panic and drove more than 14,500 refugees in Biringi, along with locals from surrounding areas, into the bushes.
On Thursday, further fighting between the two groups shifted the conflict to the refugee settlement of Ayamba, on the outskirts of Biringi municipality. Another 2,500 Sudanese refugees, together with the families of non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff working for UNHCR, fled from the fighting as Lendu militias looted the settlement while retreating.
Since then, the conflict has moved away from the refugee site of Ayamba to Kandoi, 40 km west of Biringi.
No casualties have been reported so far among the Biringi and Ayamba refugee and local populations. Refugees and villagers are returning to Biringi settlement gradually, but the majority of refugees from Ayamba are still hiding in the bushes. A few of them came out to appraise the situation and take what was left in their houses, especially vegetables that were still available in their gardens. Most houses are reported to have been looted.
On Tuesday, staff of the Diocèse de Mahagi (DDM), a local NGO working in Ayamba refugee settlement on behalf of the UN refugee agency, are scheduled to travel from Ayamba to Biringi centre to assess the situation and gather information about the possible casualties among the local or refugee populations.
So far, UNHCR staff based in Aru, 80 km east of Biringi and near the border with Uganda, have not been able to travel to the refugee sites because of security concerns. Although there is no more fighting along the Aru-Biringi main road, heavy military presence is reported and the roads are still unsafe. A car belonging to a church organisation was reportedly taken away during the fighting, and other organisations are hiding their motorbikes for fear of being robbed of them.
UNHCR is still concerned about the possibility of fresh fighting flaring up again in this or other parts of the Ituri province, which remains very unstable with at least three rebel factions trying to extend their control over towns and villages.