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UNICEF:  Situation in Bunia is 'World's Biggest Humanitarian Disaster' - 2003-06-20

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says the town of Bunia, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, scene of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today, continues to be chaotic despite the presence of French soldiers sent there to keep the peace. A UNICEF spokesman reports there has been a slight improvement in Bunia since the French troops arrived. But Damien Personnaz says there are limits to what 500 peacekeepers are able to do in a town of 350,000 inhabitants.

He says the soldiers are mainly guarding the airport and a few parts of town. This, he adds, is not enough to prevent ethnic Hema and Lendu fighters from committing widespread atrocities.

Mr. Personnaz says they continue to loot, to rape and to abduct children without fear of punishment. He says these crimes are centered in two camps housing some 80,000 internally displaced people.

"Especially in the nights, these fighters are coming in," he said. "They rape the women, they abduct the children and they disappear with total impunity... Our concern from the field is that we do not know how these people will be punished. There is no police. There is no order. There is no law. There is total anarchy."

Despite these horrors, Mr. Personnaz says, the internally displaced people housed in the two United Nations-run camps are better off than the rest of the population. The camps are located near the airport and are better protected. So, aid agencies are able to bring in relief supplies.

Mr. Personnaz says the same is not true for millions of people who live outside of Bunia and have no international force to protect them.

He says UNICEF and other aid agencies are negotiating with United Nations peacekeepers, the French forces and fighters to get safe access to a place called Lake Albert, which is about 80 kilometers south of Bunia. He says 80,000 to 120,000 people have fled there.

"There is no access," he said. "It is absolutely impossible to go out, and that is why we are trying to negotiate these corridors. Not only to make the whole region a little bit more safe, but just to have a first access to these people there who have been without any support for at least two months."

The United Nations calls what is happening in Bunia and other parts of Ituri province the world's biggest humanitarian disaster today. UNICEF's Damien Personnaz says about three million people have been killed in ethnic fighting since 1997.