Humanitarians are struggling to meet the basic needs of over 200,000 people recently displaced by clashes in North Kivu Province, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Access has been limited by the mountainous and volcanic terrain coupled with widespread, shifting insecurity.
Humanitarian agencies on the ground report urgent requirements in health care, food, water and sanitation, nutrition, shelter and non-food items. Most of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in host families, while some have moved into schools, health centers and churches. In both cases, they are draining the already limited resources of their hosts.
While many Congolese are willing to take in IDPs, towns such as Rwanguba in North Kivu (on the road to Bunagana on the Ugandan border) are full to capacity. The displaced line the road by day, smoke rising from piles of volcanic rock, with clothes laid out to dry as they try to go about their household chores while perpetually on the move. By night, they find whatever shelter they can.
"All humanitarian partners in North Kivu are fully deploying their resources but the capacity is not sufficient at the moment to cover all the needs identified. That's why we called for more funding in order to be able to complete the actual response and sustain it as long as the crisis lasts," said Yvon Edoumou, spokesman for the UN Office for the Cooperation of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Goma.
According to OCHA, just 35 percent of a US$718 million appeal for humanitarian assistance to DRC has been met.
Defections from the national army (FARDC) in mid-April left security vacuums across the region that were filled by militia groups. The situation further deteriorated when FARDC redeployed troops in the region to help quell the rebellion. Fighting in the North Kivu town of Masisi, the stronghold of indicted war criminal Gen. Bosco Ntaganda and the now militarily defunct rebel-group CNDP, displaced a major wave of people in mid-April.
A second wave took place in May, when fighting spread to Rutshuru District where M23 rebels have established their base; local militia are also accused of killing scores of Kinyarwanda-speaking (the official language of Rwanda) civilians in the region, and there have been retaliatory attacks by the pro-Hutu militia group, Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Insecurity in North Kivu has taken the number of internally displaced to 218,000 over the past two months, according to humanitarian agencies.
Alleviating suffering among the most vulnerable members of society is the prime concern for NGOs. "But for that we need to be able to access them. While most of the areas of displacement are reachable, some still remain difficult to access due to insecurity and bad roads," said OCHA's Edoumou."We need to ensure that the displaced are in safety and that assistance can be delivered without putting their lives at risk or the lives of aid workers."
The needs of IDPs and the challenges facing humanitarians in responding to them are exacerbated by the unpredictable and widespread nature of the insecurity.
"In Rutshuru, people have not moved very far from their places of origin where fighting is ongoing and this places them in greater vulnerability if the military front moves closer. In Walikale, some IDPs are located in remote areas, some of them only reachable by air, the road infrastructure being so bad. In Masisi Territory, the Mweso area is partially under armed groups' control and due to insecurity it's difficult to deliver aid without having it looted afterwards," Edoumou added.
The UN special envoy on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, has based her concerns for the current deteriorating situation on a similar state of affairs in 2010, when at least 387 women, men and children were the targets of sexual violence by the same rebels in the same area. "The situation is again causing immense suffering for civilians who are experiencing displacement, human rights violations, and loss of property," she said in a statement .
The aged represent a particularly vulnerable and often neglected demographic; on the frontline between government forces and M23 rebels south of Bunagana, an elderly couple who do not know their age live with the daily exchange of heavy gunfire above their heads. They say they have not seen anyone apart from the elderly bed-bound woman they are caring for since fighting began and people fled two weeks ago.
"ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] recognizes the unaccompanied under-fives, but there is no category for old people," said Gaetan Duhamel, director of HelpAge International in DRC. "WHO [UN World Health Organization] doesn't carry medicines for older people in an emergency situation."
According to a 2012 HelpAge study, less than 1 percent of humanitarian aid targets older people and those with disabilities. "[Older people] are the last category in an emergency and a neglected area of intervention," Duhamel added.
The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is currently helping around 90,000 IDPs living in 31 camps (under joint UNHCR and government management) in North Kivu. For those living in spontaneous settlements, a committee called the Rapid Response to Movement of Population led by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), has been put in place to help them.
"We're facing difficulties as it's quite impossible sometimes to have access to the people in the war zone. We need a humanitarian corridor to assist and protect people," said Simplice Kpandji, spokesman for UNHCR in Goma.
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