Fresh clashes in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) between fighters with the rebel 23 March Movement (M23) and the national army have forced thousands of displaced men, women and children to flee again, adding to what United Nations agencies say is an already dire humanitarian situation in which over 2.4 million people are internally displaced due to conflict.
An estimated 60,000 people have been displaced as the M23 - composed of soldiers who mutinied from the national army in April - launched new attacks in recent days in North Kivu province. The rebels are said to be advancing towards the provincial capital of Goma, despite the efforts of the DRC armed forces, known by the French acronym FARDC, and peacekeepers serving with the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
"This new escalation in fighting in and around Goma, and elsewhere in the Kivus, adds to what are already monumental humanitarian needs in the DRC," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in an update Monday.
The latest attacks by the M23 have been condemned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, with both calling for their immediate cessation.
According to OCHA, humanitarian agencies have identified three sites in Goma which can accommodate 30,000 people and where they will be able to receive civilians displaced by the renewed fighting, including internally displaced persons (IDPs) hosted in the Kanyaruchinya camp, located about 10 kilometres north of Goma, as well other residents. The most urgent priorities are protection; water, sanitation and hygiene; health; and food.
"Humanitarian agencies have some emergency capacities to respond to these needs," said OCHA. "However, these capacities could be overstretched if the security situation deteriorates further in and around Goma."
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said Monday it is deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation and its impact on children. "The renewed conflict is putting children and their families at risk, leaving them exposed to physical harm and mental distress," the agency said in a news release.
"UNICEF is particularly concerned about the psychological trauma faced by children, in addition to the risk of cholera outbreaks following a recent upsurge of the disease among IDPs in Kanyaruchinya," it added.
On Sunday and Monday, the agency provided one ton of high-energy biscuits and medicine for 500 unaccompanied children in Goma's Don Bosco Centre. Also, a UNICEF partner, PAMI, is organizing points to register and reunify unaccompanied minors with their parents.
OCHA added that the renewed clashes are having serious effects in other areas in North and South Kivu.
Armed groups have taken advantage of the security vacuum left by the redeployment of FARDC units to expand their own areas of influence, carrying out violent attacks against civilians and exacerbating inter-ethnic tension, already heightened by the M23 - this is the case in North Kivu's Masi and Walikale territories, where recent massive population displacement is reported.
"Humanitarian access is a concern in all areas affected by conflict," OCHA stated, noting that the relocation of non-governmental staff members from Pinga, located in Walikale territory, and Kiwanja, located in Rutshuru territory, both in North Kivu, means that relief activities have practically stopped, putting at risk thousands of people who were benefiting from humanitarian services.
A senior UN relief official who visited the Kivus earlier this month noted that eastern DRC has been hit this year by massive humanitarian needs triggered by the rise of the M23 and violence by more than two dozen other armed groups across the region, with widespread abuses against civilians including murder, rape and brutal reprisals.
"As armed groups proliferate in the Kivus, it is the people who suffer: men are massacred, women are raped and children are forcibly recruited, while villages are looted and destroyed," said John Ging, OCHA's Director of Operations.
The country is already facing a number of serious challenges, he noted, including 4.5 million people who are suffering from food insecurity; one million children under five who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition; and 27,000 cholera cases this year.