UN voices alarm at 'barbaric violence' in DR Congo's Ituri

Geneva (AFP) –


The UN voiced alarm Friday at accounts of "barbaric violence" in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, warning conditions for the 150,000 people returning to the area after fleeing the intercommunal strife are "grim".

The UN refugee agency said its staff had recently been able to access the Ituri region, following months of conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups there.

"Conditions are grim," spokesman Charlie Yaxley told reporters in Geneva.

"Our team heard numerous, harrowing reports of barbaric violence, including armed groups attacking civilians with guns, arrows and machetes, entire villages razed, and farms and shops being looted and damaged beyond repair," he said.

A UN report last month estimated that more than 260 people had been killed in the recent intercommunal violence.

The troubled province is caught in a cycle of violence between the Hema and Lendu communities, cattle herders and farmers who for decades have long fought over land.

- Homes 'reduced to ash' -

UNHCR said that in all, around 350,000 people are estimated to have fled the violence since the conflict intensified last December, but that since the violence died down, around 150,000 had returned to the area.

Many of those who have gone back so far have found their villages and homes "reduced to ash, making them displaced again," Yaxley said.

He said the humanitarian challenges in the area were "enormous", with hospitals, schools, and other key infrastructures destroyed.

The UN refugee agency voiced particular concern over the high numbers of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition in the area.

Those returning are not the only ones facing huge challenges, Yaxley said, pointing to "desperate" conditions at many of the sites hosting those who remain displaced.

He said many of the sites have no clean water or access to healthcare or proper sanitation facilities, warning that in particular at the displacement site near the general hospital in Bunia there was a high risk of diseases spreading.

UNHCR said its efforts to provide desperately needed aid in the area were being hampered by critical underfunding.

So far, only 17 percent of the $201 million UNHCR has requested for its DRC operations this year has materialised.

"With the humanitarian funding lacking these people are being forgotten and left to fend for themselves," Yaxley said.

He said some returnees are trying to make do with what they find amid the rubble of their homes, while others are opting to return to displacement sites.

"Neither in the areas of origin nor in the displacements sites are conditions near anything that could be approaching sustainable," he said.