Goma — The UN refugee agency on Wednesday urged warring rivals in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ensure the safety of tens of thousands of people displaced by days of fighting and the rebel capture of the key city of Goma.
"It's clear we are in a situation of multiple displacement," said Stefano Severe, UNHCR's regional representative. He was referring to the tens of thousands of people who have fled for their lives since fighting erupted last Thursday in North Kivu province between government troops and the rebel M23 movement, which took Goma, the provincial capital, on Tuesday.
The total number of displaced is currently uncertain, but at least 60,000 people have fled the Kanyaruchinya camp for internally displaced people (IDP) north of Goma, with many people finding shelter in Mugunga III camp to the west of the provincial capital, where some 10,000 had arrived up to last Saturday.
Like other major humanitarian aid organizations helping IDPs from Goma offices, UNHCR moved non-essential staff to neighbouring Rwanda on Tuesday, leaving a core team in Goma. They said the situation was calm on Wednesday. These staff members were due to take part in a meeting later today in Goma with other aid agencies to discuss ways to help the displaced.
Amid unconfirmed reports of human rights abuses, UNHCR is very concerned about the security and general welfare of newly uprooted civilians as well as those already in the camps after being displaced in earlier waves of combat.
"We are calling on all armed parties engaged in the fighting to take effective measures to ensure the safety of civilians, facilitate their evacuation from combat zones and protect public buildings where they are sheltering," said Severe.
"UNHCR urges all parties to take steps to protect civilians and prevent indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on them," he added. Severe also urged that the IDP camps be protected and their civilian nature be respected.
The refugee agency is also concerned about violence and protests aimed at UN property since the fall of Goma, including damage to part of UNHCR's office in the north-eastern town of Bunia.
Meanwhile, the latest fighting in North Kivu has had little impact on neighbouring Uganda, where more than 53,000 refugees have registered since January while about 33,500 of them have been transferred to settlements. Others have returned home or are staying with host families.
In Rwanda, large numbers of Congolese crossed the border at Gisenyi, east of Goma, last week. But many are returning to North Kivu - some 6,000 by latest count.