The U.N. refugee agency says thousands of people are fleeing their homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo because of fighting between the Congolese army and dissident forces in the eastern section of North Kivu province. The UNHCR reports more than 20,000 Congolese have fled to Uganda since January 20.
The U.N. refugee agency says most of the refugees returned to the DRC after a few days, but some 3,000 have asked for asylum in Uganda and have been moved to permanent settlements further away from the border.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond says a pattern seems to be developing. People are going to Uganda at night for safety, and then they return to the Congo in the daytime, when the threat of fighting decreases. He adds that not everyone fleeing the fighting goes to Uganda. Thousands are seeking refuge within other parts of Congo.
"UNHCR staff on the ground say that the Kiberezi area, which has seen some of the worst fighting, is now almost empty," noted Redmond. "Its normal population is about 40,000, but there are now only about 2,000 people remaining in that immediate area. Some 30,000 of them have fled to the neighboring town of Kanyabayonga. Others are hiding in surrounding hills and forests, surviving in the bush with no shelter, water or food, and no possibility of getting any assistance. We are particularly worried about that population. The situation in Kiberezi is nothing short of a humanitarian tragedy."
Aid workers on the ground tell of many atrocities committed against civilians, including rape and killings.
UNHCR spokesman Redmond says the displaced people are afraid the violence and insecurity will continue, but they say they want to go back to where food is available, and there is no food either in the town of Kanyabayonga or in the bush. Redmond says another concern is that the violence is spreading.
"While the situation in North Kivu is extremely worrisome, other parts of eastern DRC are also affected," said the UNHCR spokesman. "In Katanga, further to the south, tens of thousands of people have been displaced by continuing violence. Atrocities against civilians including rape, murders and house-burning have also been reported there."
Redmond says the UNHCR is sending more staff to eastern Congo to coordinate with other agencies to help protect and provide internally displaced people with food and other relief supplies.
The UNHCR says fighting has displaced at least 1.7 million people within the Congo.