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DRC: Displaced civilians scared to return to North Kivu town

NAIROBI, 19 September 2007 (IRIN) - Thousands of Congolese civilians who were displaced in August by fighting in Sake town, North Kivu Province, are still living in camps out of fear that fighting could resume, a UN official said.

"Sake is almost a ghost town; some of the displaced come to the town during the day but return to IDP [internally displaced persons] camps around Goma [the provincial capital]; they are still afraid," Eusebe Hounsokou, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), said on 19 September.

Hounsokou had led a team to visit Sake and IDP camps located between the town and Goma, 30 km to the east. Before the latest fighting, Sake had about 30,000 inhabitants. Most of them are now in IDP camps around Goma.

"It is difficult to establish the number of displaced as yet," Hounsokou said. "In the camps we visited, a lot needs to be done as they are still informal. However, aid agencies, local and international NGOs are putting in place more formal [systems]."

The heavy rains in the region, he said, had created an urgent need for shelter to prevent possible disease outbreaks among the IDPs. Already, Hounsokou added, cases of cholera had been recorded "on a limited scale".

Fighting erupted in August between the Congolese army and troops loyal to renegade general Laurent Nkunda, who has stated he is defending the rights of ethnic Tutsis in the region, leading to scores of deaths and the displacement of thousands of villagers.

Hounsokou said local officials in Sake had told him that Nkunda's troops had not moved to the edge of a two-kilometre buffer zone between them and the army as they had promised.

"A local chief said this area is surrounded by mountains and Nkunda's troops are still face-to-face with government soldiers although the distance between them is wider than before," Hounsokou said. "The chief said this had made the people afraid to go to the farms, preferring to remain in the camps instead."

Although local officials appealed to the international community to bring aid to Sake to encourage people to leave the camps, Hounsokou said security had to be guaranteed before IDPs could return to their homes.

"All we want is the creation of good conditions for people to return to their homes," Hounsokou said.

President Joseph Kabila arrived in Goma on 19 September and officials said he was expected to visit Sake.

Children among IDPs

According to Pernille Ironside, a protection officer for UNICEF in Goma, thousands of children were among civilians displaced by fighting in the past few months in North Kivu Province.

"These children are at direct risk of all sorts of violence, but particularly sexual violence, exploitation, abuse, certainly re-recruitment and new recruitment, and other threats to their physical safety," she said.

UNICEF, she added, was trying to establish child-friendly spaces in the IDP camps in the province to provide a protective environment for the children to minimise the risks against them.

"Children are used in a multitude of different roles by armed groups," Ironside said. "More often, they tend to be behind the scenes in more support roles as porters, spies, guards, and cooks; and certainly girls are taken to be the forced wives or sex slaves of many of the officers in these groups."

She said there were alarming reports of hundreds of children still being recruited by armed groups in North Kivu.

"It is extremely alarming and essentially means we are on the brink of potentially taking a major step backwards in all of the advances made in the child DDR [Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration] programme in the province," she added.

There were also reports of children being captured during the fighting. "We hope these children will be released immediately into our custody for protection. It demonstrates the existence of the children in the various groups and we know they are being held in extremely desperate conditions, and possibly subjected to various forms of abuse during their custody."

The latest fighting was now threatening UNICEF's past success in reuniting children with their parents. "Since 2005, child protection agencies operating in North Kivu, have helped reunite 8,500 children with their families," she said. "These are all potential targets for being re-recruited by the various militia groups."



Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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