The UN Refugee Agency said on Friday that it was “greatly alarmed” by fighting between government forces and armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which had caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
Matthew Saltmarsh, a spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva that the violence in February caused nearly 300,000 people to flee across the Rutshuru and Masisi territories of the DRC’s North Kivu Province.
“Civilians continue to pay the heavy and bloody price of conflict. This includes women and children who barely escaped the violence and are now exhausted and traumatised, sleeping out in the open air in unplanned or planned sites,” he said.
Attacks in Ituri have gone up
At the middle of January, the UN aid agency OCHA said that more attacks had forced 12 humanitarian groups to cut back on their work in parts of Ituri Province.
In 2021, the DRC government put North Kivu and the area next to it, Ituri, under a state of siege to stop the violence between militias in the country’s vast, mineral-rich east. But there have still been killings and rebel activity.
Marie Dzedza has given up on leaving a camp for displaced people and going back to her village in the eastern Congolese province of Ituri, where violence is rising while the region’s attention is focused on a conflict in a neighbouring territory.
Five years ago, members of the Codeco group cut off both of Dzedza’s hands with a machete during a raid. The Codeco group is one of many militias that have caused instability in the densely forested province of DRC and forced 1.5 million people to leave their homes since late 2017.
“We miss our old lives,” she said at the Kigonze camp, where she lives with almost 14,000 other people in rows of white tents on a clearing outside the provincial capital, Bunia.
“I hate where I live… So, I’m asking the government of the Congo to do something to bring peace back so I can go home.”
The outlook is not favourable. In the three months between December 1 and mid-February, 419 civilians were killed in attacks, according to UN data. At the same time, a major offensive by a different rebel group pulled some Congolese forces away to the province of North Kivu in the south.
The head of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, Monusco, Bintou Keita, said that things are getting worse in Ituri. Monusco is supposed to leave Ituri and the rest of eastern Congo by 2024, according to a plan that is still being talked about.
On March 1, Keita made her first official trip to Ituri in a few months. She and local officials blamed Codeco and a rival militia called Zaire for the killings and attacks that kept getting worse.
We couldn’t get in touch with the groups because they work in remote areas and don’t have official spokespeople.
In January, 49 bodies, including those of women and children, were found in mass graves in two villages in Ituri. The UN blamed Codeco for these killings.
International aid groups have warned that the attacks have made it harder to get help to people who were able to escape. This has made the humanitarian crisis worse.
In the middle of January, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that more attacks since the start of 2023 had forced 12 humanitarian groups to cut back on their work in parts of Ituri.
But the recent trouble in North Kivu has made people forget about how much security has gotten worse in Ituri. Congo, the UN, and other countries have accused Rwanda of helping the M23 rebels in Congo, which has caused more political and diplomatic problems. Rwanda says it doesn’t help the M23.
Lieutenant-General Johnny Luboya N’Kashama, who is the military governor of Ituri, said that the army was trying to talk to the armed groups. He also said that the army was doing large-scale patrols with Monusco and building new bases so that it could respond faster to reports of attacks.