UNHCR prepares to register thousands of Congolese displaced in Katanga Province
MITWABA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, April 28 (UNHCR) - Seemingly out of nowhere, the silent caravan of 66 undernourished people dressed in little more than rags appears on Mitwaba's dusty main road in bright daylight. Everyone, including the children, carries whatever they can from the few belongings they managed to take before fleeing. Smoke-stained pots, pieces of manioc and the occasional mud-smeared jerry can are carefully balanced atop their heads. Uncertainty and fear are written in their eyes, as the newcomers are still not sure if they have finally found safety in Mitwaba town.
Over the past two weeks, almost 1,000 new internally displaced people have arrived exhausted and famished in the Mitwaba area. They continue to arrive at an rate of between 50 and 100 a day. The remote territory of Mitwaba, deep in Katanga's rugged savannah landscape, has rarely been so busy.
To meet the needs of some 20,000 people who have arrived in recent months in Mitwaba after fleeing harassment by both government soldiers and Mai Mai militia, the UN World Food Programme is air-dropping food; the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has sent peacekeeping troops; and this week, a UNHCR registration team arrived.
"We spent two weeks hiding in the bush after fleeing our village, Ekwete, about 40 kilometres from here," sighed an exhausted man among the newly arrived people. "The militia attacked the village so we left."
Asked why his family hid in the bush for so long, he replied: "We were afraid to come before now." All the new arrivals say the same thing - a recent lull in the fighting made it possible for them to move more openly in search of help.
UNHCR's registration programme for the displaced people is being conducted with MSF-Belgium and is scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Mitwaba. Once the Mitwaba displaced are registered, the UNHCR team will move to other areas in Katanga Province. Many of them can only be reached by plane or helicopter.
In all, an estimated 170,000 Congolese have been displaced over the past six months in Katanga because of fighting between government forces and Mai Mai militia. The exact scale of the humanitarian crisis is difficult to assess because of the fragile security situation and an absence of passable roads across the vast landscape.
Civilians have not only been displaced, but they face serious harassment and abuse by both sides. This includes rape of women and children and the looting and destruction of entire villages.
The registration of the internally displaced people will help all aid agencies in Mitwaba - MSF-Belgium, Action Contre la Faim (ACF), Caritas, Action Contre la Pauvreté (ACP), WFP, OCHA and UNICEF - in responding to the needs more efficiently and effectively. Uncertainty over the exact number of displaced has made planning for the procurement of food and aid items extremely difficult.
In a meeting Thursday with some of the leaders of the displaced, UNHCR registration officer Roger Panze assured them that they would be registered beginning next week and would be getting help.
"All village chiefs at this IDP [internally displaced persons] site can present their people to our registration team next Tuesday," Panze told a group of about 40 anxious chiefs and women leaders gathered in a grass hut on Thursday at the Makanda IDP site.
The situation in DRC reflects a global trend of increased internal displacement and fewer refugees crossing international borders. An estimated 1.6 million Congolese are internally displaced within their own country, while some 420,000 are refugees in neighbouring countries in the region. The security situation in some parts of the DRC - a vast country the size of Western Europe - has recently improved enough so that more than 60,000 Congolese refugees have been able to return to their home areas since early 2005, many of them with UNHCR assistance.
But the outlook for Katanga Province remains very uncertain.
By Jens Hesemann in Mitwaba, Democratic Republic of the Congo