|A mother washes her children, Bunia, Eastern Congo|
NEW YORK, 16 December 2004 – Fierce fighting is reported to have erupted at Kanyabayonga in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a region hard hit by a six-year conflict. Despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission, there are fears that the ongoing violence could get even worse. Some 2.5 million people in the region have now fled their homes – more than three million in the country as a whole.
“The conflict in DR Congo has been going on for quite some time, so you have massive displacement of women and children and whole families,” says the head of UNICEF’s office in eastern Congo, Johannes Wedenik. “You have people who have been displaced several times, so you have successive waves of displacement. Many children, many families have been in a dire situation for many years.”
Over the past six years, nearly four million people, half of them young children have died in DR Congo as a result of ongoing violence, or through starvation and disease.
The majority of the 2.5 million displaced people are living with host families, putting a tremendous strain on resources. Many others have gathered in camps or are forced to live in the bush. Food supplies, safe water and shelter are in short supply.
|A mother sits with her children, Eastern Congo|
Children remain vulnerable to malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections, although a mass immunization campaign organized by UNICEF has reduced the potentially deadly impact of measles.
What’s worse, children are often directly involved in the fighting. They make up around 30 – 50 per cent of fighting forces in eastern Congo. Children are used as soldiers and porters, while girls are frequently forced to become sexual servants to combatants. UNICEF is supporting programmes to rehabilitate former child soldiers into their communities, and is working with all sides to encourage the demobilization of children, but the process is difficult and time-consuming.
Only 40 per cent of children in the region are enrolled in school. In some areas, such as in North Kivu, only a third of girls go to school. Despite these overall figures there has been some progress in the last year after UNICEF stepped in with school supplies and pressed for girls to be given access to full-time education. Some schools are seeing 40 per cent more girls in first grade as compared to last year.
Eastern Congo’s children need security, freedom from fear and sustained humanitarian assistance. “We have to hold responsible government and international communities, all that are involved in the conflict to live up to their promises,” says Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF Representative for DRC, “basically to put an end to this conflict that is destroying a country.”