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Renewed Fighting Prevents UNICEF from Reaching DRC's Ituri Region - 2003-06-06


The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says continuing fighting is preventing aid workers from reaching between four and five million people in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. UNICEF calls the level of violence in Ituri appalling. It says thousands of women and girls are being raped, mutilated and killed there. Last month, at least 430 people were massacred in ethnic fighting in the provincial capital, Bunia.

The UNICEF Representative in Congo, Gianfranco Rotigliano, just spent 10 days in Bunia. He says the situation has eased somewhat, but remains tense.

He says UNICEF only has access to about 3,000 families and has provided them with high protein food and other items.

In addition, he says aid agencies have encountered some 50,000 people who fled Bunia during the violence to areas about 80 kilometers south of the town.

"They fled just with what they had on them," said Mr. Rotigliano. "So, we are receiving people that marched for two weeks or three weeks in the forest, crossing rivers, sometimes losing children while crossing rivers and they come there and they need everything. UNICEF with all our partners, international NGO's [non-governmental organizations], national NGO's, other U.N. agencies is taking care of those people with non-food items and supplementary feeding."

But, Mr. Rotigliano notes the few tens of thousands of people UNICEF and other aid agencies are able to help are only a small fraction of the number who are in need. He says between four and five million others in the Ituri region also need assistance, but are inaccessible.

He says the conditions for women and children in Congo are among the worst in the world. U.N. statistics show 20 percent of all children die before they reach five years of age. One out of two children do not go to school and 50 percent of the population do not have access to safe water.

Mr. Rotigliano says a recent study shows 3.5 million children in Congo have died.

"This is due to the war," he explained. "Not because those children were killed, but they die because of lack of basic infrastructure, because of the conditions that war is putting around them. A generation of children is affected. They do not go to school, but they are recruited in the army. Nobody knows exactly how many child soldiers are now in Congo. In Ituri alone, we think that we have something between eight and 10,000. And, that is appalling, I think."

The first members of an expanded U.N. peacekeeping force arrived in Bunia Friday. The force is expected to restore law and order in the town. But reports from the area say some people are concerned that the 14,000 U.N. soldiers lack the force and the authorization to control areas outside Bunia, where fighting is believed to be continuing.

In addition, UNICEF's Gianfranco Rotigliano says an appeal for $46 million to help the people of Ituri has so far only netted $6.5 million.