|Children wait to receive school supplies near Tche camp in Eastern DR Congo.|
by Sarah Crowe
BUNIA, Democratic Republic of Congo, 15 February 2005 – Huddled in groups under palm trees and plastic sheeting, tens of thousands of people from the Ituri district, in the north-eastern corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo, have found refuge in a protected camp after being forced to flee their homes.
Attacks by militia, the destruction of villages and the kidnapping of young children are all on the rise. In the past week the number of people seeking protection from the violence has risen dramatically.
Aside from a few sites protected by UN troops, there is no security. Armed men and boys from the militias are all around. So far some 50,000 people have made it to the protected sites, but it is believed there are some 30,000 – 35,000 who are still seeking refuge.
Five different militia groups with unclear goals but brutal tactics control pockets of the Ituri district. Through magnificent countryside, anyone passing through the regions encounters one makeshift checkpoint after the next in order: first ‘FNI’ territory, then ‘UPC’, now ‘FAPC’, now ‘FRPI, now ‘PUSIC’ – the acronyms change, but the tactics stay the same.
The conflict in DRC is often described as ethnic or tribal, and sometimes it is. But right now it is about resources – about the militias getting their hands on the vast mineral resources of the region, including gold, diamonds, coltan (columbite-tantalite) for cell phones, and uranium. The militias seek to force a form of haphazard customs control on people crossing over Lake Albert or through ‘their’ territories.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been the scene of one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War Two. Nearly 4 million people are believed to have died in the last six years. Most were innocent civilians and children. Elections are scheduled for June 2005 but instability persists.
Aid agencies fear for tens of thousands hiding in the bush
Eleven young boys, who have now taken refuge at a transit camp in Ituri, experienced this first hand. These boys and others were forced to become child soldiers: They were kidnapped by militia, compelled to carry weapons and act as spies on the front lines of battle. The boys approached UNICEF last Saturday (12 February) for demobilization and reunification with their families.
Fourteen-year-old Rachel Claudine Maskini knew there was no peace in her country when she heard the shooting on the morning of Friday 4 February. “I ran hide with my father,” she said.
“He was hiding next to me in the long grass and one of the militia came up and shot him right next to me. I was afraid but I just kept down and then we all escaped here to Kafe. Everything was burnt down. Now all I want is some clothes and to go back to my studies.” Rachel now shares a temporary shelter, made of a frame covered with plastic sheeting, with six other family members.
Not far from Kafe is Tche camp, which has literally mushroomed over the past few weeks. Here there now live some 13,000 people who have fled the fighting, depending on food aid for survival, and with plastic sheeting their only shelter.
Aid agencies fear for the tens of thousands of people who are hiding in the bush and who need help. It is impossible to predict how many will make it to the safety of the camps.
At the Losandrema Akpalo primary school, which was hurriedly set up by UNICEF in the past few days near Tche camp, a few hundred children were expected for the first distribution of school supplies. More the than 1,200 children turned up.
Already, life in the camp has taken on at least a semblance of normalcy, but all around it the terror continues. A steady stream of people passes by or into the camp, women and girls in colourful wraps, carrying wood or bags of maize on their heads, babies on their backs still bright and smiling despite the utter upheaval that has been thrust on them again.
14 February 2005:
Chris Niles reports on the thousands of displaced people that have crowded into Tche camp in Ituri district, DR Congo.