LONDON (AlertNet) – Fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has prevented access to most of the 31 camps in North Kivu province that provide shelter for 108,000 displaced people, according to UNHCR, the U.N refugee agency.
Only Mugunga III camp, west of the provincial capital Goma, can be visited, the agency said in a statement on Friday.
Rebels in eastern Congo pushed south along Lake Kivu on Friday after repelling a counter-attack by government forces near the new rebel stronghold in the city of Goma on the Rwandan border, Reuters reported. Others moved north from the strategic road junction at Sake.
A Reuters correspondent in the area said rebels were in control of Sake after a battle on Thursday, which had been the first sign of a government fightback after the army on Tuesday abandoned Goma to the M23 movement, widely thought to be backed by Rwanda.
“An increase of fighting between government forces and rebel M23 fighters that is being reported from the town of Sake, 20 kilometres west of Goma, is causing thousands of civilians to flee the area,” UNHCR said.
“Our protection monitors are reporting many incidents of violence affecting civilians.”
In Goma, more than 60 incidents of assault on civilians have been reported by UNHCR’s partners. They said eight people have been killed, and that houses and shops have been looted.
Reports also said 16 children were injured by gunfire during the fighting between the M23 and DR Congolese armed forces, according to UNHCR.
Another 500 unaccompanied minors, who were receiving assistance in Goma before the city's takeover on Tuesday by the M23, are now newly displaced or refugees in Rwanda, the refugee agency said.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that there are more than 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 who were displaced between July and September.
The M23 rebel movement, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, has vowed to "liberate" all of the vast, resource-rich country.
Here is a round-up of aid agency activities in the area:
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday that it had identified about 80 war-wounded patients on Wednesday and Thursday in two hospitals in Goma.
Half of the patients had been wounded in recent fighting, placing a heavy burden on the hospitals, which are also treating people wounded prior to the most recent outbreak of violence last week, the ICRC said, adding that its surgical team operated on four war-wounded patients on Thursday.
"Many people have been wounded, while the thousands forced to flee their homes to Goma have been without help for several days," said Frederic Boyer, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Goma.
"The front line is shifting and new communities are now directly affected by the conflict in North and South Kivu," Boyer said. "Others are living in fear of being caught up in the fighting at any moment."
The ICRC said it is operating around the clock in N'Dosho hospital in Goma, while its Geneva-based chief surgeon has travelled to the city as part of overall efforts to increase the size of its medical team.
The agency said it has delivered medicines and other medical supplies to the hospital, as well as 28,000 litres (6,159 gallons) of drinking water.
Katindo military hospital in Goma also received medical supplies and fuel for generators to power equipment, the statement said.
"Civilians and wounded combatants are dying from their injuries," said Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC delegation in the DRC.
"Every sick or wounded person is entitled to medical care," he added. "They must be spared and protected, as must health-care facilities and personnel. And the red cross emblem must be respected."
The ICRC has delivered 85,000 litres (18,697 gallons) of water to temporary shelters, including to the Don Bosco transit camp where it said unaccompanied children and 7,000 displaced people have sought refuge.
Over the last two days 60 unaccompanied children have been registered, and efforts to trace their families are now underway, the ICRC said, adding that a team collected and recorded the remains of 60 people who died in Goma.
The charity ActionAid said in a statement on Friday that it has been forced to stop work in several communities because of the violence.
"The situation is worsening as the efforts of aid agencies are becoming severely disrupted -- we are unable to deliver help and reach out to vulnerable people trapped by the conflict," said Adelin Ntanonga, ActionAid's country director for DRC.
"We are witnessing an appalling humanitarian crisis that will deteriorate further if we continue to be denied access to the worst affected areas."
In Goma there is little food, clean water or shelter and no medical facilities or power, ActionAid said, adding that fighting has not only destroyed property, public infrastructure and equipment, but that it has also led to the looting of livestock, increased violence against women and girls, and human rights violations.
Kanyaruchinya camp, where Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is working, is now empty after around 60,000 people – many of whom had previously been displaced - fled in panic, the charity has said.
“The atmosphere in the city is tense, people are worried,” said Grace Tang, head of mission for MSF (Doctors Without Borders) in Goma. “The fighting that for months has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes elsewhere in the region has now reached Goma’s doorstep.”
Thousands of people have reached the Mugunga III, Mugunga I and Lac Vert camps or headed south to camps in Minova and Kirotche in the neighbouring province, South Kivu, MSF said, adding that conditions in the camps are precarious.
MSF is providing health services, water and sanitation in Lac Vert and Mugunga I, and bolstering its operations with extra medical staff – including surgeons.
Staff at the charity’s Cholera Treatment Centre in Goma are preparing for an influx of new cases as tens of thousands of people arrive and set up camp in and around the city.
Charity Christian Aid has urged the UK to promote the appointment of a U.N.-African Union special envoy to lead mediation to help resolve the conflict.
“With the current upsurge of violence and the deterioration of the humanitarian situation, there is a desperate need for the UK government to position itself clearly and to push actively for solutions for the current military and humanitarian crisis in the DRC,” said Chantal Daniels, Christian Aid policy and advocacy advisor for central Africa.
“We want the UK government to use its leverage and influence in the region, as well as a Security Council member, to invest in the development of a long-term stabilisation framework that addresses local, national and regional root-causes of the conflict.
Caritas reported that its staff is working full strength in the communities affected by the conflict to address humanitarian needs.
“The situation is calmer, but we're still uncertain about what tomorrow will bring," said Father Oswald Musoni, director of Caritas Goma.
Nov. 21, 2012: Aid agencies boost defenses as Congo violence spreads
The International Medical Corps (IMC), which has been working in DRC since 1999, said in a statement that it had evacuated its staff from Goma.
World Vision said it has temporarily evacuated its staff. The aid agency said it has suspended all programme activities in the area and that it is considering relocating its humanitarian operations to nearby Gisenye in Rwanda.
World Vision advocacy manager in DRC Dominic Keyzer: “We know from the recent practices of the groups involved in this latest fighting that unaccompanied children in this part of DRC are in immediate and real danger of forcible recruitment into armed groups.
“Children have nowhere to turn, we can’t get to them, and we are hearing reports of groups arming people around Goma. Local partners have seen armed people passing guns and ammunition to civilians this morning – including children aged 16-18. A former child soldier we have worked with in the past told us today: ‘I have seen some of my friends receiving weapons and going to fight — they are being told to go and fight the rebels and take their guns’."
Jesuit Refugee Services Great Lakes advocacy and communications officer Danilo Giannese: "We have evacuated nearly all our staff from Goma. Given the security situation, all our activities, including assistance programmes in the camps, have been suspended. However, our teams in nearby Masisi and Mweso are still in situ as the roads out of the country are too dangerous.
“We're particularly concerned about our local teams who are currently separated from their families in Goma. Fortunately, they've been in contact with their families and everyone is safe.
“The consequences of the ongoing crisis in Goma are especially acute for individuals living in particularly vulnerable circumstances, such as children, older people, those with disabilities and health problems. They are often unable to flee the fighting, find safe haven or support themselves."
Oxfam humanitarian coordinator in DRC Tariq Riebl: “Recent fighting risks pushing a serious humanitarian crisis over the edge. We know that so far 50,000 have been displaced and fear that up to 120,000 people could have fled in the last few days. Entire camps have been abandoned, and there are very few safe places for civilians to go. It could be that many will converge on Goma itself, a city with very few resources and not much space.
“With almost 2.5 million people now displaced across eastern Congo, this catastrophe needs the humanitarian and diplomatic response to be urgently stepped up."
Merlin programme coordinator Sophie Goudet: “Because people have fled, our first job is to find out where they have gone to. We will be searching schools, churches, football fields – any large sites and buildings. The health of people in DRC is extremely poor. The vaccination rates are low, infant mortality is high and malaria is endemic.
“Against the backdrop of DRC’s already fragile health system, this displacement means we are looking at a double crisis. That is why as of today we have activated our emergency response mechanism.
“Support staff for finance, admin and training, have been moved to Rwanda for the time being. Our senior management team and healthcare staff, however, will remain on the frontline because Merlin is a force for health and reaching people in desperate need is our business.”