Rebel violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is escalating inside the Ebola-hit North Kivu province, putting millions at risk, the United Nations refugee agency warned.
“Thousands of civilians fled burned-out villages, bringing reports of brutal attacks,” Andrej Mahecic, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a press briefing in Geneva, following reports that a case of Ebola infection and one suspected case were found in a town in the area, Oicha, surrounded by armed groups.
The disease has killed more than 60 people and infected dozens more in recent weeks.
Forced displacement in this part of the country remains massive. It is estimated more than a million people are displaced in North Kivu. This is the highest concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the DRC. An estimated half a million people were forced from their homes this year alone.
At the briefing, Dr Peter Salama, WHO Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response, said the discovery of Ebola infection in the hard-to-reach part of eastern DRC could mark a “pivotal” point in the response to the deadly disease.
“It was the problem we were anticipating and the problem we were dreading. Our teams responded. They’ve had to reach Oicha with armed escorts. Once there, they are able to move more freely in town, because it is a yellow zone from a security perspective,” he explained.
Mahecic said UNHCR was concerned about the deteriorating situation in the Ebola-hit northern territory Beni, where Oicha is. The area is home to some 1.3 million people. Spiralling conflict left the population living there in a virtual state of siege since October 2017. Reports of increased human rights violations and restrictions of humanitarian access are frequent.
Estimates are more than 100 armed groups are active in the province, continually terrorising the population. Despite a large-scale military offensive of the Congolese Army against one of the main rebel groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) since January, there has been no let-up in the violence.
“Despite security challenges, a UNHCR team accessed north of Beni earlier this month and conducted humanitarian assessments in Oicha and Eringeti districts. Residents told our staff about brutal attacks with machetes against civilians. Stories of massacres, extortion, forced displacement and other human rights violations are frequent.”
Sexual and gender-based violence is apparently rampant across Beni territory. Many children are being recruited as child soldiers. Violence is particularly rampant in the so-called “triangle of death,” between Eringeti, Mbau and Kamango, on the Uganda-DRC border, as well as in Beni, Oicha and Mavivi.
UNHCR is scaling up capacity in North Kivu to respond to growing humanitarian needs.
“We are arranging additional emergency shelters and other humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of displaced in Beni. While UNHCR’s humanitarian response is continuing despite the outbreak of Ebola, the prevailing security situation and drastic funding shortfall severely hamper our efforts,” Mahecic said.