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WFP Delivers Food Outside Bunia, DRC - 2003-09-12

The World Food Program says that for the first time in months, it has been able to deliver food to thousands of people outside Bunia, in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The WFP says the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers in Ituri province is making it somewhat safer to move around, although the area is far from secure.

The World Food Program says one of its partners, a private German aid agency, was able to reach the town of Songolo Wednesday and distribute food to more than 5,000 people.

WFP Spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says this is the first time in more than 1.5 years that any aid agency has been able to go outside Bunia. She says fierce ethnic clashes between the Lendu and Hema tribes have made the region extremely dangerous.

"Since last week, the new U.N. force has taken the place of the multilateral forces led by the French, and they are slowly getting out of Bunia into the countryside and re-establishing a bit of a security, demobilizing soldiers, disarming soldiers. So, we can go," she said.

Human rights groups report thousands of civilians have been killed, raped, and mutilated during years of conflict. Millions have been made homeless.

Ms. Berthiaume says most of the people in Songolo had been living in the forest for months. They, along with thousands of other people in the region, had fled into the bush to escape the ethnic fighting.

She says the people who have returned home are in very bad shape. Many are malnourished. Now that the fighting has subsided, she says, people are slowly returning to their villages. But, she adds, they are coming back to nothing.

"There are places in the village, which have been completely destroyed," said Ms. Berthiaume. "You have to rebuild and start from scratch, rebuild the houses. There is nothing over there. So, we have given these people some food, as well as seeds, because this area is a very rich area, agriculturally very rich. So, we give them seeds, so they will not eat the seeds they have right now, and they will plant to have another harvest soon."

The World Food Program estimates at least 40,000 families are still hiding in the forest. Ms. Berthiaume says the situation in and around Bunia is slowly improving, but remains too dangerous for aid agencies to move around freely.

Because of the insecurity, she says, the WFP has to transport food into the area by air, a very costly process.