Aid agencies warn of humanitarian crisis as DRC sees more fighting

Fri, Nov 23, 2012, 00:00

A humanitarian crisis is looming in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, aid agencies have warned, after another day of fighting sent thousands of people fleeing for safety.

About half a million people have been displaced by a violent rebellion since April. With state control collapsing in large swaths of the east, there are severe food shortages and a heightened risk of cholera and other diseases.

The rebel militia M23 – widely believed to be backed by Rwanda – holds the major city of Goma but was taken by surprise yesterday in the village of Sake, 26km away, when government soldiers launched a counter-offensive, opening fire from surrounding hills.

M23 sent four truckloads of reinforcements from Goma but reports indicated that the rebels were forced to pull back towards the city. M23 military spokesman Lieut Col Vianney Kazarama said: “It is war, of course there is fighting.”

The violence in Sake forced thousands of people to take flight, a familiar pattern in recent days that has seen huge numbers of civilians on the move with whatever possessions they can carry. At Mugunga, a sprawling refugee camp halfway between Goma and Sake, the numbers of displaced have soared.

“Before [the fighting] we had 15,000 people here,” said Jean Sindi Dunia, the principal police commissioner in Mugunga’s third camp. “Now we have displaced people arriving from Kanyaruchina [another camp north of Goma]. We haven’t yet worked out exactly how many are here but we think the numbers have tripled.”

Those fleeing in terror find overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in the poorly supplied camps.

Chaotic conditions’

Tariq Riebl, Oxfam’s humanitarian co-ordinator, said: “People are living in chaotic conditions. There are real fears that cholera and other fatal waterborne diseases could spread, as shortages of power and water in Goma have left thousands of people with no choice but to get water straight from Lake Kivu.”

He added: “The world is watching Goma but there are many towns and villages across eastern Congo completely forgotten and run by predatory men with guns.”

There was superficial calm in Goma yesterday. Although banks were closed and some areas were without power, many shops and markets were open and bustling. Only a small contingent of M23 soldiers, carrying rifles and wearing clean uniforms, could be seen. But the sound of heavy weapons fire in the distance caused a flurry of panic with people hastily fleeing for cover. –(Guardian service)