Doctors Without Borders, also known by the French acronym MSF, is sounding the alarm this week as it treats an unusually high number of sexual assault victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province.
Jason Rizzo, the emergency coordinator for MSF in North Kivu, told VOA that clashes between the Congolese army and many armed groups, including M23, have recently led to the enormous displacement in the province of 1.2 million people.
"We have been trying to respond to the different needs that come with mass displacement, access to health care, food, water, shelter and all the epidemics that can come with that, when vaccination coverage is low with measles and cholera," Rizzo said. "We've been trying to respond to all these medical humanitarian emergencies at the same time and one of the biggest problems has been the question of sexual violence."
Rizzo said the number of victims of sexual assault has climbed to nearly 50 per day in the past two weeks.
He said a contributing factor is that people don't have enough to eat. When the humanitarian response clearly does not provide basic services, he said, people take matters in their own hands to make ends meet.
"Perhaps one of the reasons the numbers on our end have exploded over the last couple of weeks is that we've started providing medical services in one of the newer camps called Rusayo," Rizzo said. "Now this is one of the most densely populated camps, also located sort of on the periphery of the city and closer to the forest area. People will go out, they will search for firewood, food, and that's often when the incident is occurring."
One displaced woman living at the Rusayo camp said that shortly after arriving, her child started exhibiting signs of malnutrition. Needing to do something, she said, she went into the nearby forest to collect firewood to sell so she could buy food, and was attacked.
MSF says it treated nearly 700 victims in the last two weeks of April in camps located in Bulengo, Lushagala, Kanyaruchinya, Eloime, Munigi and Rusayo.
Asked who the perpetrators are, Rizzo said it's difficult to respond with any degree of certainty.
"This is a very traumatic event," he said. "We know a good percentage of the victims have told us they were being raped by armed men, but to be able to say exactly what group a particular aggressor was a part of, it's hard for them to say, it's hard for us to say."
Rizzo said MSF is having open discussions with various DRC authorities to ensure that services are in place so that victims can seek medical treatment within 72 hours. Sexual violence is a medical emergency, he told VOA, not something that could be treated weeks later. The reason, he said, is there are a host of potential medical complications, including potential pregnancy and infections.
VOA asked DRC officials for comment, including Major Guillaume Djike, DRC Goma Military spokesperson. Djike said authorities were looking into it, but did not elaborate.
This week, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi threatened to end the mandate of the East African Community Regional Force, whom he accused of working with M23 rebels, a group that claims to represent the interests of the minority Tutsis in eastern DRC. East African forces have been deployed in the eastern part of the country to help fight M23 and other armed groups there.
Last month, regional force commander Major General Jeff Nyagah lauded the ongoing stability efforts in eastern DRC, saying the cease-fires among warring parties have been holding for over one month and they've seen significant withdrawal of M23 from certain areas. Shortly after, Nyagah resigned abruptly.