UNICEF says it has started a major relief operation to assist about 50,000 people who have taken refuge in three camps which are under the protection of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Ituri region of Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But, it says it is extremely worried about the fate of thousands of other people who have fled into the bush and the jungle. It says it is difficult and extremely dangerous for aid agencies to try to locate these people and provide them with assistance.
Fighting among different armed groups erupted in the Ituri province of eastern Congo in January. The most affected area is the territory of Djugu just north of Bunia.
UNICEF spokesman, Damien Personnaz, says UNICEF aid workers, who recently conducted an assessment mission in the area, describe a scene of desolation and destruction.
"They saw some looted villages. A lot of these villages also were burned down," he said. "Apparently, a lot of people have been killed, but it is difficult to know exactly how many. What is know and it is an ongoing scenario in this part of the country, a lot of women and girls have been abducted and a lot of them have been raped."
UNICEF says the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo has received little attention from the world, though it is one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II. It notes an estimated 3.3 million people are believed to have been killed in less than six years. Most of them civilians. It says many of these people have been killed in fighting, but many more have died of disease and starvation.
Mr. Personnaz says children are the most vulnerable. He says most children do not have enough food to eat. As a consequence, he says their level of malnutrition is very high.
"In this province, we know that 400,000 children are displaced and basically 400,000 children are malnourished," he said. "The fact that they do not have access to safe water. They do not have access to safe latrines. They do not have access to safe health facilities. They do not have access to medicines. They do not have access to sufficient food. Their situation is desperate."
Mr. Personnaz says it is particularly depressing that no one actually knows how many children are caught in this terrible situation. And, worse still, because of the dangers existing in the region, he says aid workers are unable to reach the children and give them the help they need.