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Massive displacement as fighting surges in eastern DR Congo



UN refugee agency UNHCR says civilians in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are once again bearing the brunt of localised violence.

UNHCR, in a statement on Wednesday, said this has come amid a sharp uptick in fighting between Government forces and the M23 armed group.

Fresh fighting since last week in the region had displaced an estimated 135,000 people from the town of Sake on the northern banks of Lake Kivu.

According to UNHCR, the displaced people were moving towards the provincial capital of Goma, about 25 kilometers away.

The agency further said it received reports of bombs falling on civilian areas in Sake and Goma, where an estimated 65,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are sheltering.

It added that the situation had since prompted “significant concerns” for their safety.

“The escalating use of heavy artillery and shelling in clashes around Goma poses grave threats to civilian and displaced populations, threatening more casualties and the destruction of buildings used as communal shelters,” UNHCR said.

The presence of unexploded ordnance poses a particular threat to children, it added.

UNHCR noted that since the first week of February, at least 15 civilians had been killed and 29 injured around Goma and Sake.

Chansa Kapaya, UNHCR Regional Director for Southern Africa, said that men, women and children have been targeted in relentless confrontations.

“The situation is tragic and unacceptable. We urgently call on all parties to protect civilians, respect humanitarian law and establish safe corridors for aid,” she said.

The indiscriminate bombing is amplifying the strain on already limited resources to accommodate 800,000 IDPs in the region, and 2.5 million displaced across North Kivu Province.

The violence continues to restrict access to isolated populations in Masisi territory and Rutshuru, compounding the challenges faced by humanitarian agencies in delivering essential assistance, UNHCR said.

With few viable options for safe passage from Goma, the growing displaced communities in the town face rapidly deteriorating conditions, it added.

UNHCR then emphasised the imperative to safeguard the lives and well-being of civilians and those driven from their homes.

It also called for an immediate halt to fighting, and for urgent negotiations to resolve the conflict and alleviate the suffering of innocent civilians caught in the violence.

The fighting and displacement come against the backdrop of a devastating cholera outbreak and massive floods in January which wreaked havoc across the DRC.

Some 100,000 houses, 1,325 schools, 267 health facilities and large swathes of agricultural land have been damaged or destroyed as of last week.

This has left an estimated two million people —- nearly 60 per cent of them children —– in need of assistance.

Cecilia Ologunagba

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