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Fighting in Congo Displaces 100,000 Civilians

What began as dispute over local fishing rights is now humanitarian crisis for government in Brazzaville, security concern for government in Kinshasa.

Fighting in western provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo has displaced more than 100,000 people. Some are seeking refuge across the border in Congo-Brazzaville where relief officials say they have only enough supplies to feed one-third of the refugees.

Nearly 15,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo live in the Congolese Republic town of Betou along the Oubangui River that separates the countries.

Immigration officer Jean Zoda says he and his family were caught in the crossfire between government troops and ethnic Enyele militiamen who have been fighting across parts of the Dongo region for the past four months.

Zoda says the rebels attacked about seven kilometers from their village, so he and his family fled the following morning. They took all their possessions to the river, but then soldiers arrived and started attacking, so they dropped everything and fled into the forest. He says they stayed in the forest until midnight before they found a boat to cross the river. Zola says they left everything behind.

Relief officials say refugees are spread across more than 80 sites along 500 kilometers of the river. And there has been little humanitarian assistance, with only about one-third of the refugees receiving food rations during the past four months.

Refugee Micheline Alemba used to work as a cook in Dongo. She says her family has been hungry since they arrived in the Congo Republic. There are so many people here, she says they can not find anything to eat. They go into the forest to look for food, but Alemba says there is not much.

"One-hundred-thousand people is really quite a large number of people and the situation is really bad, but of course in times when there are 200,000 dead people in Haiti and looming wars elsewhere and a volcano erupting, there is certain competition between victims, which is unfortunate, which we do not want to foster, but which is a reality of our work and we have to respond to that," explained Corinna Kreidler, who works with the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office.

What began as a dispute over local fishing rights is now a humanitarian crisis for the government in Brazzaville and a security concern for the government in Kinshasa.

Earlier this month, Enyele militiamen launched their boldest attack, landing boats in the capital of Equateur Province and briefly taking control of the governor's office and the airport in Mbandaka.

They were eventually driven back in a joint counter-attack by government troops and U.N. peacekeepers. But the speed with which this rebellion has grown has renewed concerns about the strength of Kinshasa's army with U.N. peacekeepers set to begin withdrawing from western areas in June.

Congolese Information Minister Lambert Mende says government troops are slowly regaining the ability to take responsibility for defending their own country and will be ready by the time U.N. troops complete their gradual withdrawal next year.

The head of Congo's peacekeeping force, Alan Doss, told the Security Council that discipline in the government army is likely to remain a constant concern so long as, what he calls, structural problems in the military remain unresolved. Doss says there are persistent delays in the payment of salaries and low levels of training for many troops, especially those who have been integrated from various armed groups.