Congo-Kinshasa: Hundreds of Thousands Flee Ethnic Violence in Ituri Province

The General Hospital site in Bunia (file photo).

The U.N. refugee agency reports an upsurge of inter-communal violence in northeastern DR Congo's Ituri province has forced more than 300,000 people this month to flee for their lives.

The Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in Ituri province have been going to war with each other sporadically over land use since 1999.  Inter-ethnic fighting between the two communities in late 2017 and early 2018 was marked by widespread displacement and abuse.

But the calm that had taken hold over the past year has broken down again with the recent flare-up of fighting. The U.N. refugee agency reports masses of people are fleeing attacks and counterattacks in three of Ituri province's five administrative territories.

UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch says humanitarian agencies are unable to reach the victims in most of the affected areas.

"UNHCR fears this escalation could engulf large parts of the province.  We are gravely concerned for the safety of civilians after receiving reports of killings, kidnappings, maiming and sexual violence being unleashed against people," Baloch said.

The epicenter of the Ebola epidemic in the eastern DRC is in North Kivu province.  But Ituri province also is affected.  The World Health Organization reports the virus has infected more than 2,100 people and killed nearly 1,500.  It says about 10% of these cases and deaths are in Ituri.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told VOA the massive displacement in Ituri will certainly complicate efforts to contain Ebola.

"The mobility of the population in North Kivu and Ituri is a risk factor. Every time you have people moving in high numbers, it is more complicated to do the ... work on follow-up contact tracing, follow up on people who are, I suppose basically to be observed on a basis for 21 days," Jasarevic said.

Ebola symptoms emerge between two and 21 days after a person becomes infected. It is crucial for an infected person to seek treatment immediately.

The U.N. refugee agency reports the hundreds of thousands of newly displaced in Ituri are in urgent need of shelter, basic household items and food. It says tens of thousands of people are sleeping in the open or in public buildings without any practical assistance.

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