The U.N. refugee agency says some 46,000 Congolese who fled violent clashes early this week in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province need emergency assistance.
The fighting, which erupted March 28 between M23, a rebel military group, and the Congolese army in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu province, sent an estimated 10,000 people fleeing for safety across the border into Uganda. U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says nearly 36,000 other people are displaced within the DRC.
Spokesman Boris Chershikov told VOA that UNHCR staff who were at the border to greet the newly arriving refugees could hear artillery fire in the background.
“Some of the people coming through had gunshot wounds. They needed to be treated," he said. "Many of them found shelter in a nearby school, and hospital, with host families. But the vast majority were staying out in the open field and at the same time they were facing heavy rains, which were making conditions even worse.”
Cheshirkov said the UNHCR is working with the Ugandan government and humanitarian partners to provide basic assistance, and that some are being moved to transit centers along the Congolese border.
He said most of the nearly 36,000 people displaced inside the DRC are living with host families, or in markets and schools, adding that security conditions are making it difficult to deliver aid to those people.
Similar attacks launched by M23 rebels in the same area last November were quickly pushed back by the Congolese army. Cheshirkov said a majority of some 11,000 refugees who fled to Uganda at that time returned to their homes in the DRC within 48 hours.
“What is different in this situation compared to the attacks in November is that people are still in Uganda," he said. "And this is four days after the attacks began and they are needing increasing assistance. And, because the rains are still falling and conditions are difficult, this raises the prospect of also the spread of disease, of many other needs rising.”
Cheshirkov said clashes in Rutshuru reportedly have subsided. While that is good news, he said conditions remain unstable, thus making it unlikely that the refugees will return home any time soon. Until that happens, he said, the refugees will need international support to provide for their needs.
According to Cheshirkov, the UNHCR will have difficulty providing the help because it is pinched for cash. So far this year, he added, the UNHCR has received only 9% of the more than $343 million needed to run its Uganda operations.