Attacks on communities in an Ebola outbreak hotspot in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) sparked a humanitarian crisis and threaten aid distribution the UN said amid reports of serious civil unrest.
Tensions in eastern Beni territory in DRC’s North Kivu province have been rising since the launch of a government-led security operation against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) on 30 October, UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Charlie Yaxley said in Geneva.
Armed groups target civilians and displaced populations, killing scores and leaving people “caught in the crossfire” he added.
Hervé Verhoosel, UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokesman said the agency had temporarily suspended aid distribution “because both our staff – and more importantly the staff of partners working with us on the ground – their security was not guaranteed and access was difficult”.
As a result, “thousands of people will not receive food assistance in the coming days”.
According to UNHCR Beni is home to around 500000 people. “We understand there are at least 275 000 people in the surrounding areas who are displaced. Conditions are dire and deteriorating,” Yaxley said.
Armed groups preying on children
Children need immediate support, he said, as many “lost their parents or arrived unaccompanied. Forced recruitment by armed groups is a real threat to the safety of children and women also face widespread sexual violence, abuse and risk of exploitation.”
The development comes as people in eastern DRC continue to be targeted by a multitude of armed groups, with at least 100 people reportedly killed in violent attacks in the Beni region and thousands displaced since 2 November, UNHCR said.
Highlighting the impact of insecurity in Beni and Oicha on frontline health workers tasked with tracing anyone who has come into contact with people infected with Ebola, Christian Lindmeier, spokesperson for the UN World Health Organisation (WHO), said surveillance levels dropped from 86 to 59%.
According to WHO, around 30% of WHO’s Ebola response personnel in Beni have been temporarily relocated to Goma.
“These are essential functions of the response known to reduce the risk of virus spread and fluctuations in performance following insecurity may enable – we are pretty sure it will enable – new chains of transmission,” he added.
As of 26 November, 3 304 Ebola cases were reported, with 2 199 people dying since the outbreak was declared on 1 August 2018.
In an appeal for an end to violence in and around Beni, Yaxley warned humanitarian agencies needed “immediate access to support the affected population. Hundreds of households are sleeping in churches and schools.”
Some groups of people were “trapped”, he said, surrounded by armed forces and facing “ongoing attacks against schools and health centres. Even where people are known to be sheltering, they’re being displaced again by armed groups attacking. At times, people are caught in the crossfire.”
In its latest update on the outbreak, the country’s Ministry of Health noted “disruption of activities in Beni and Butembo, following popular demonstrations at the killing of civilians”.
The development follows attacks by armed groups at a camp in Biakato Mines and an Ebola response co-ordination office that claimed the lives of three responders and a police officer, injuring six others.
Condemning the violence, the WHO appealed for the “constant” attacks to stop. The development risks reversing significant progress made against the epidemic, with infections falling to just a handful in recent weeks.