Children in conflict-ravaged central Democratic Republic of Congo are suffering "terrible acts of abuse," having been forced into armed groups, drugged and dragged into violence, the United Nations said Monday, warning that their plight was rapidly worsening.
Fighting between the army and a local militia in the Kasai region has uprooted more than 1.4 million people over the past year, including 850,000 children who are bearing the brunt of the violence, according to the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
Children are prey to attacks, detention and sexual violence, as well as the threat of diseases and malnutrition, several aid agencies have told Reuters in recent weeks.
"Children and women tell us of terrible acts of abuse. ... Many children have been recruited by armed forces, drugged and caught in the violence," UNICEF's regional director, Marie-Pierre Poirier, said in a statement Monday.
More than 3,300 people have been killed in Kasai since the start of an insurrection in August by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which wants the withdrawal of military forces from the area.
The militia is largely composed of children — some as young as seven — and is using beliefs in witchcraft, such as drinking the blood of decapitated victims, to ensnare its members and scare its targets, U.N. investigators said last week.
Their report, based on testimonies from refugees who have fled to Angola, detailed violence that the United Nations said may amount to crimes against humanity.
"Nothing can justify these actions," Poirier said. "The world must not turn a blind eye to the dire situation of children and families in the Grand Kasai region."
Families uprooted by the violence cannot send their children to school or access health care — more than 200 health centers have been destroyed in Kasai — and an estimated 400,000 children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
The region is the scene of a growing humanitarian disaster in a nation where violence has escalated since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down when his mandate ended in December.
Analysts fear growing violence could spark a repeat of the conflicts between 1996 and 2003, mostly in the east of Congo, in which millions died, mainly from hunger and disease.