The people of the far northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo live in constant fear of attacks from a notorious rebel group from neighbouring Uganda, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today after visiting the region.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman traveled to Dungu, a remote Congolese village near the border with Sudan and Uganda where over 300,000 people have been uprooted by clashes in a region terrorized by the rebels known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
"The LRA is notorious for kidnapping children, forcing them to kill and maim innocent victims and enslaving young girls as their concubines," she said after talking with children who had been abducted by the rebels.
Ms. Veneman met with a former child soldier living with a foster family in Dungu whose seriously-infected foot prevented him from keeping up with the daily long-distance treks with the LRA.
"The rebels taunted him and then severely beat him and left him behind," she said, adding that he was stranded for days without food and water before he was found.
The UNICEF head said she has been encouraged by the strength and resilience of the LRA victims. "While I was horrified by the violence inflicted on these children, I was inspired by the sheer will and determination of the community to help."
Five women she met who each had taken in traumatized children, despite having limited resources and large families of their own, exemplify a "true example of humanitarianism," she said.
UNICEF and its partners are on the ground to provide psycho-social support and basic education for the former child soldiers.
"I asked the mothers and the children what they wanted most," Ms. Veneman said. "The answer was the same. The children said they wanted to go back to school. The women said the children are the future of this country and we need the resources to educate them."
Last week, she met with some young victims of rape and violence in Bukavu, a city in the province of South Kivu, while visiting with patients and staff at the Panzi Hospital, which specializes in treating victims of sexual violence, the agency said in a news release.
At least 200,000 cases of sexual violence have been recorded in eastern DRC since 1996, according to a recent report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who earlier this month called on the Security Council to set up an independent commission of inquiry into such abuse in the conflicts in DRC, Chad and Sudan.
Today's visit to Dungu took place on the last day of Ms. Veneman's five-day trip to the DRC.