Thousands flee violence in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Image: Rei-artur.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports more than 16,000 civilians have fled ethnic violence in the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The UNHCR says the refugees crossed the Oubangui River into neighboring Republic of Congo to find safety after their villages were burned.

The UN refugee agency reported that the mass exodus from the DRC's remote Equateur Province took place last week. It says ethnic clashes broke out between the Enyele and Munzaya tribes over farming and fishing rights in the village of Dongo.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said that 60 people were killed, and the deadly fighting spread to surrounding villages, several of which were burned. He says 40 other people were seriously injured and some are being treated in hospital.

"The 16,000 DRC asylum seekers—who are mainly Munzayas—are staying in public buildings or with host communities across 11 villages alongside the Oubangui River," he said.

"A UNHCR team is now visiting them and our initial assessment is that they need proper shelter, food and household items such as blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans. Since a thorough assessment is made, we will work together with the government to help them. Some are also in need of medical care, but an over-stretched mobile clinic run by a UNHCR partner cannot cope with all their needs at the moment," he added.

The first clashes between the Enyele and Munzaya occurred in March. More than 200 houses were burned in the village of Munzaya, and more than 1,200 residents fled to safety in the Republic of Congo.

Mahecic reported that the UNHCR is very concerned about the intensity of the violence and its spread to nearby villages. He says the villages have been virtually emptied of their inhabitants.

He says this latest violence, which is taking place in the west of the DRC is unrelated to fighting going on in the east, which has displaced 1.7 million people within the country.

Before the current influx, the UNHCR spokesman said the Republic of Congo already was hosting some 9,000 refugees from the DRC who had previously fled there to escape civil war in their country.

According to Mahecic, when the DRC's civil war formally ended in 2003, large numbers of refugees returned home. But, he says this last group of 9,000 refugees does not want to return to the homes they fled in the DRC. They say they wish to settle permanently in the Republic of Congo.