Congo displacement reaches devastating level as violence escalates, aid groups warn


(LONDON) — Almost a million people have been forced to flee their homes in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the start of the year following an upsurge in violence in the east of the Central African nation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, has announced.

Humanitarian agencies are raising alarm at the “humanitarian and medical toll of the violence,” saying the situation has reached a “devastating level” as thousands of weapon-wounded civilians pour in to hospitals in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and surrounding areas.

In a dramatic resurgence of violence, the March 23 Movement armed rebel group has been expanding its territory and advancing towards Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, forcing thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire to flee as fighting intensifies between M23, the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and various other armed groups.

Xavier Collard de Macquerh, head of programs at the International Committee of the Red Cross, told ABC News that the situation is dire and “we are witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“People are experiencing loss in a repetitive manner, displaced several times in a row,” he said.

Collard de Macquerh says moving frontlines are triggering a wave of displacement, hospitals in Goma supported by the ICRC receiving more and more wounded civilians. “We are receiving more and more weapon-wounded and seeing a sharp increase in those wounded by shrapnel, explosives, which is a major concern.”

Collard de Macquerh told ABC News many civilians are also fleeing north to hard-to-access areas for humanitarian organizations due to security.

“People are in need of access to basics such as food, water, hygiene and access to health,” he told ABC News over the phone from Kinshasa, calling on armed actors to take all possible precautions to protect civilians caught in the crossfire.

According to the World Food Programme, around a quarter of the Central African nation’s population is facing “crisis levels of hunger or worse,” with many living in poor conditions with no access to food, education or health services. It’s a conflict-driven hunger crisis, WFP said in a statement last week.

Almost 300,000 people have arrived in Goma and its surroundings since “violent clashes” enveloped the town of Sake in Masisi territory in February, UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh said at a press briefing in Geneva. The mass displacement has caused spontaneous and official displacement to “swell” as civilians desperately seek refuge from “indiscriminate bombing and other human rights abuses.”

The DRC now stands as the second-largest displacement crisis globally, second only to Sudan, the U.N. said, with over 7.1 million people internally displaced, including 800,000 in the last three months.

“Close to 10 million people are on the move,” said Saltmarsh. “Poverty and hunger affect a quarter of the population or 25.4 million people. The spread of cholera and other infectious diseases pose significant threats to the populations health.”

International Childrens charity Save the Children said the violence has also closed over 500 schools in the North Kivu region, creating chaos for children and “putting them at risk of being recruited by armed forces.” There have been at least two cases of teachers being kidnapped.

The U.S. has called on warring parties to turn to the Luanda Process.

“There is no military-only solution to the crisis in eastern DRC,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Robert Wood said in a briefing to the U.N. Security Council. “The United States strongly supports the efforts led by regional actors to resume the Nairobi and Luanda processes, which offer the most viable paths toward resolving this 30-year conflict.”

“The United States calls on the leaders of Rwanda and the DRC to make the decision to pursue peace – for the sake of their people, the region, and the world,” the ambassador said.

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