The U.N. refugee agency says the number of people who fled ethnic violence in the remote Equateur province of the Democratic Republic of Congo has risen to 21,800. The mass exodus from the DRC into neighboring Republic of Congo began less than a week ago when fighting between two tribes erupted over farming and fishing rights.
The U.N. refugee agency reports the Congolese refugees are scattered in villages in the Republic of Congo along a 160-kilometer stretch of the Oubangi River. This forms the border between the DRC and ROC.
UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, says the refugees, who are mainly ethnic Munzaya, told aid workers about the horrifying events that prompted them to flee.
"Now sheltering in villages between the districts of Betou and Impfondo in the northern Republic of Congo, they told our staff they were fleeing Enyele tribesmen who, they said, had gone from house to house, pillaging, raping and killing mostly Munzaya civilians in Dongo and surrounding villages, which are now virtually empty," Mahecic said. "The root of the violence, they said was a dispute over farming and fishing rights."
The UNHCR reports 70 percent of the refugees are women and children. During the weekend, the agency began distributing blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, kitchen sets and jerry cans to the refugees.
Mahecic says 60 people were killed during the attacks. He says more than 20 of the refugees arrived in the Republic of Congo with gunshot wounds. He says nine of the severely wounded are in Impfondo hospital, including an 11-year-old girl who had her right leg amputated.
He says a UNHCR-funded mobile clinic is going from village to village to provide basic healthcare to refugees. He adds the governments of the two Congos are providing medicine to the health centers.
"Refugees have mostly stopped crossing the border amid reports that the DRC military forcefully intervened in Dongo to stop the attacks by armed Enyele, who appeared to have organized into a militia," Mahecic said. "In spite of this government action, on Monday our colleagues in the Republic of Congo could still see smoke from burning houses across the river. While some of the new arrivals told us they would like to go back to their villages once the Enyele militia is crushed, others felt too traumatized and told UNHCR that they were not ready to go back."
The bloody dispute between the Enyele and Munzaya began in March. Munzaya civilians suffered greatly from these tribal clashes. More than 200 of their houses were burned and more than 1,200 residents fled to safety in the Republic of Congo.
Mahecic says this is a local dispute and is unrelated to fighting going on in eastern Congo. That conflict has displaced 1.7 million people within the country.