Bukavu — Humanitarian agencies working in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo have been overwhelmed following a massive displacement triggered by fighting between the Congolese army (FARDC) and rebel movement M23 in North Kivu.
"The situation is truly precarious. There is no medicine, no food. Children could die. People are spending the night outside, each one beside their baggage, and it is very cold," says Roger Manegabe, head of a family who managed to reach Bukavu from North Kivu.
"We're missing school. We're hungry, there's no drinking water, there's no electricity. I'm 16 years old and war is all I've known from the time I was born. What will become of us?" said Fiston, Manegabe's son.
Since the start of the year, conflict in the two Kivu provinces -- militias in South Kivu have also clashed -- has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation and uprooted nearly 650,000 people, according to U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards.
Manegaba's family is among some 250,000 civilians newly displaced since April in North Kivu, and a further 339,000 in South Kivu. According to Edwards, during this period more than 40,000 people also fled to Uganda and 15,000 others to Rwanda. And since August, Burundi has received nearly 1,000 new Congolese refugees.
Rebel fighters captured Goma, the province's largest city, on Nov. 20, and Sake the following day, before their advance stalled.
M23 was launched on Mar. 12 with a mutiny of Congolese army officers and soldiers. It is now putting forward a broad set of demands covering politics, social issues, human rights and governance. The movement is demanding direct talks with Congolese President Joseph Kabila as a precondition for retreating from Goma.
The group's political spokesperson, Jean-Marie Runiga Lugerero, held a preliminary meeting on Sunday Nov. 25 with Kabila in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, following a regional summit on the crisis in eastern DRC.
More than 30,000 people who fled the Kanyaruchinya sector in North Kivu have found refuge at a camp in Mugunga, swelling the total numbers there to 40,000. They told the UNHCR representative in the province, Lazard-Etienne Kouassi, who visited the camp on Nov. 22, that they had not received food since their arrival and that they were eager to go back to their villages.
They asked UNHCR to make vehicles available to help the most vulnerable displaced people, such as children and the elderly, in order to quickly return home. Kouassi promised to respond to the request in line with the agency's capabilities.
Conditions are similarly precarious at Sake, some 27 kilometres south of Goma. Here, some displaced persons are living in classrooms or churches, while others are forced to sleep in the open. Due to a lack of humanitarian assistance, they have had to beg or work for residents of the town in order to survive.
World Vision estimates that there are 200,000 children at risk from Goma alone. According to the international charity's reports from partners on the ground, many children have been separated from their parents in the confusion surrounding the fall of the town that began as M23 approached Goma on Nov. 12.
Many of these children are now being exploited by families in Goma, according to Junior Alimasi, head of cooperation at the children's parliament of North Kivu. "They have gone to work for these families in exchange for food and shelter. In November, we've already recorded complaints of abuse from two dozen children," he told IPS.
"We have opened the doors to several thousand refugees, mostly women and children," Father Piero Gavioli, director of the Don Bosco Centre, which shelters children at risk, told IPS by phone from Goma.
"We're carrying out a head count, which suggests there are around 2,500 households, with an average of two children per household, which means 6,000 or 7,000 refugees."
The ad hoc camps for displaced people fell short of what's needed even before the latest advance by M23, according to a report published in October by the European Union's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in South Kivu.
OCHA said the province has been affected by a deteriorating security situation which threatens thousands of civilians and has caused the reduction or even suspension of humanitarian efforts in the region.
"The creation of ad hoc camps spreads cholera, measles... the overcrowded camps include many children who have not been vaccinated and are now exposed to brutal epidemics," the report says.
Maxime Nama, information assistant for OCHA in South Kivu said: "Children are recruited against their will, used as porters or even as combatants, and in the case of girls, sexually exploited. The violence and the fighting put them at grave risk of being injured or killed."
Father Piero said that Western countries were guilty of failing to help the thousands of people in danger. "Today," he told journalists during a Nov. 22 videoconference, "I will repeat my accusation, even if it goes unheard."