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UNHCR Gains Access to Displaced in North Kivu


The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says it is distributing desperately needed relief supplies to thousands of people displaced by fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo's eastern province of North Kivu. It says access to some of the internally displaced has improved in a few areas due to a lull in the fighting among government, renegade and rebel forces. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The U.N. refugee agency says the situation in North Kivu province has been going from bad to worse since the beginning of the year. It says fighting in recent weeks has caused tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

It says many people have fled to more secure areas in the North Kivu region, while others sought refuge in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda.

The U.N. refugee spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says security is very bad. And, until a few days ago, aid agencies were unable to reach the newly displaced. Now, that access has somewhat improved, he says, aid workers have been able to assess the extent of the displacement.

"According to the latest assessments carried out by several U.N. agencies and NGOs, there are now some 65,000 displaced Congolese in Muganga area, out of almost 90,000 newly displaced in Kivu just in September," said Mahecic. "Overall, since the beginning of the year, we see that this is basically the worst displacement situation over a period of three years, with some 300,000 Congolese being uprooted since the beginning of the year."

Aid workers on the ground report that the refugees are living under very difficult conditions in makeshift settlements that lack latrines, health care and other essentials.

Mahecic says aid agencies have seized on the temporary lull in the fighting to distribute food and other relief supplies, including plastic sheets, kitchen sets, blankets and soap to nearly eight thousand people at Bulengo, a site in North Kivu.

He says this site, which was established by the UNHCR, now hosts more than 1,500 families. He says it has grown over the past week, as more displaced people arrive from villages and makeshift camps in the surrounding areas.

"And, at the moment, we are expanding the site to cope with the new arrivals and transfers from the other locations," he added. "Once they get there, each family is allocated a small plot where they can set up a shelter, and then they start constructing from materials they are given."

Now that the situation has calmed down, Mahecic says most of the thousands of refugees who fled to Uganda have gone home. He says the UNHCR is planning to close its transit center in that country once the people remaining there are moved to another settlement.

But, he says the UNHCR will keep the latrines and water tanks in place as a precautionary measure. He says another upsurge of fighting could cause a new influx of refugees.