Congo-Kinshasa: Refugees Risk Lives to Flee Ituri Province

Militiamen when they were initially disarmed in Ituri district, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The U.N. refugee agency reports thousands of people are taking deadly flight as ethnic violence grows in Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri Province.

Some people are losing their lives in their desperation to escape the increasingly bitter conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in DRC's Ituri Province. The U.N. refugee agency reports four Congolese refugees seeking safety in Uganda have drowned after their boat capsized on Lake Albert two days ago.

The UNHCR says several days prior to this tragedy, two other refugees died at the DRC shores of Lake Albert, where thousands of people are waiting to cross.

Last week, the agency recorded a huge surge in the numbers of people fleeing Ituri, with more than 22,000 Congolese crossing Lake Albert to Uganda. This brings the total number of new arrivals in Uganda since the beginning of the year to 34,000.

UNHCR spokesman, Babar Baloch, calls this very alarming. He tells VOA this is the biggest exodus of refugees from Ituri for two decades. That is when 400,000 people were displaced and tens of thousands were killed in clashes between the Hema and Lendu over cattle and grazing rights.

"We remain worried," he said. " ... What we have seen in the last weeks, on average 3,000 people fleeing per day, and this could still go on as there are reports of thousands of others being stranded on the shores of Lake Albert inside DRC."

Baloch says refugees recount gruesome stories of growing attacks against civilians in Ituri Province, as well as killings and destruction of private property. He says UNHCR has received many reports of civilians being hacked to death and killed with arrows.

Baloch says arriving refugees are in great need of shelter, food and other vital support. He says new settlements must be built and it is critical for refugees to receive psychological counseling to help them overcome their trauma.

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