GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency warns more than 360,000 people who have fled inter-communal violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri province over the past two months are living in squalor, struggling to survive.
The violence, which erupted between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups over land and other resources in mid-June, is not as acute as it was then, but it has not gone away. To complicate matters, other armed groups have joined the fighting.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said thousands of people continue to flee, though at a lower rate. Agency staff who recently visited the town of Djugu found empty villages and burned homes, he told VOA, adding that many of the displaced are afraid to return.
"People who have tried, or relatives who have tried to return to their villages and to their homes, they have been reportedly attacked and killed," Baloch said. "Displaced people are saying that they have lost relatives who were even trying to go and bring back some possessions from their houses or from their villages."
People in overcrowded towns and villages are forced to find shelter wherever they can, he said. Many are sleeping in the open, while others have converted local schools and churches into large, squalid dormitories.
Ituri, along with North Kivu province, is in the throes of an Ebola outbreak. However, World Health Organization spokesman Christian Lindmeier told VOA no case of the fatal disease has been detected among the displaced population.
While no specific precautions are being taken, he said treatment centers are operational and health workers try to make both the fleeing and migrating populations aware of the risks.
"The scenario of a highly mobile population on the run is something which has been underlying in this response since the beginning, which is why it is so difficult to end it," Lindmeier said.
Risks of disease, violence
The UNHCR said the most urgent needs are for shelter, water, sanitation, health care and food. Poor hygiene is increasing the risk of diseases spreading among the displaced, it warned, adding that women and girls are also at high risk of sexual violence.
The agency reports it lacks the funds to deal with the crisis, saying it has received only one-third of its $150 million appeal and is urging the international community to fill the gap.