Numbers of civilians displaced by fighting skyrockets
UNICEF says that the number of civilians uprooted by fighting in Ituri district, Eastern Congo since the beginning of this year has risen dramatically over the past week.
Although some 50,000 civilians had fled attacks on their villages by the first week of February, monitors had reported an additional 30 to 35 000 displaced by 15 February.
Speaking from New York, the UNICEF Executive Director, Carol Bellamy, says that the rise in fighting is “a serious threat to the peace process, and a lethal step backwards for Congo’s children.”
“We need to bring the same sense of urgency to the Congo that we brought to the tsunami, in order to stop the killing of children,” said Bellamy. “This is a country that was moving towards a peace process, with the promise of elections this June. Renewed attacks against civilians puts the transitional process at risk, and are a disaster for Congolese children.”
The fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the bloodiest conflicts the world has known since the Second World War. In less than six years, an estimated 3.8 million people are thought to have been killed. The vast majority of them are civilians, and the majority of those most probably children.
Many have been killed in fighting, but a far greater number have died of disease and starvation. As homes, hospitals and schools have been destroyed, families and communities trying to escape the fighting found themselves without food, water, shelter or other basic services. Some 1.4 million children suffer from some form of malnutrition.
The area most affected by current bout of fighting is the territory of Djugu just north of Bunia. Villages have been looted and burned down by armed factions linked to different ethnic groups. Interviews with terrified civilians confirm that there have been widespread killings, rapes, and looting.
Katya Marino, a UNICEF Education officer in Bunia who had just returned from an assessment to one of four new sites hosting displaced people, said that families continue to enter the site each day. “As soon as you leave Bunia, there is no security beyond those few sites protected by the UN peacekeeping forces. There are armed men, there is a sense of terror, and it is very difficult for us to reach people who need our help.”
UNICEF is undertaking a major relief operation to assist the estimated 50,000 people who have managed to reach the safety of four sites, which are guarded by UN troops. The interventions cover the provision of safe water, access to sanitation facilities, the provision of shelter and cooking materials as well as the distribution of high protein biscuits for vulnerable children. As of Saturday, UNICEF through its partners had distributed basic household items to over 11,000 families with plans for further distribution to another 5,000 families in the coming days.
Planning is underway to vaccinate children against measles and to start an education programme.
UNICEF is seeking 34.6 million USD for its 2005 emergency operation.
For more information, please contact:
Damien Personnaz, UNICEF Media, Geneva, 41 22 909 5716,
Gordon Weiss, UNICEF New York, 1 212 326-7426