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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

UN agency heads call for new commitment to help Africa's Great Lakes region

© UNICEF/Raymond
UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman meets a group of students in South Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The stop was part of a joint mission by the heads of UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNHCR to Africa’s Great Lakes region.

NAIROBI, Kenya, 3 March 2006 – The heads of three of the largest United Nations humanitarian agencies today urged the international community to match political progress in the Great Lakes region with a new commitment to end the suffering of the millions of people forgotten by the rest of the world.

After a six-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda, the three heads of agencies, on their first joint mission to their common operations, said that what had been seen and heard showed the need for closer cooperation by all to help refugees, internally displaced people and returnees.  

"We have clearly heard their message: 'Don't abandon us at this crucial time and risk a return to the bloody nightmare that we lived through for so many years,'" said UN World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris, UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in a joint statement. 

"The courage of the people of the Great Lakes region must be matched by solidarity from the international community," they added. "The beginning of the end to this regional crisis is in sight but in order to reach it and rebuild people's lives, it is vital that we all stand by them and redouble our efforts."

All three agencies need substantial additional funding for their work in the Great Lakes countries.

© UNICEF/Raymond
Hundreds of people joined Ms. Veneman, Mr. Morris and Mr. Guterres at the port of Baraka in northeastern DR Congo to greet refugees returning from Tanzania.

Sources of hope

The heads of agencies saw both hope and despair almost daily. On Tuesday, they welcomed 400 Congolese refugees returning home from Tanzania at Baraka port in eastern DR Congo. An hour later, they heard the testimony of victims of sexual violence, including a 12-year-old girl who had been abused by four men, and a grandmother who left her house to look for food and was raped. 

"This is deplorable. It's not fair. It's not right. As a result of these horrible crimes, people flee and women are too afraid to even cultivate their fields," said Mr. Morris.

"Women and children must be protected. Violence is unacceptable. It must be stopped," added Ms. Veneman. 

DR Congo has witnessed some of the most vicious fighting in the world since World War II. A six-year war has cost 4 million lives and 1,200 people still die needlessly every day. More than 3.4 million people have been forced to flee their homes and 17 million don't have a steady supply of food.

The three heads of agencies said there was hope, arising from DR Congo's constitutional referendum and the fact that millions of people had registered to vote in June in the first multi-party presidential elections in 45 years. But this opportunity should be supported by substantial humanitarian assistance, both for those people returning and for those who are still under attack in the east.

Visiting schools and support centres

While in DR Congo, Ms. Veneman, Mr. Morris and Mr. Guterres visited two schools, the Maman Yemo School and the Mushimbakye School. UNICEF, in cooperation with the international NGO AVSI ('Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale’ or Association of Volunteers in International Service) is providing an extensive support package to the Maman Yemo School. AVSI is a key partner of UNICEF in emergency education.

The support package includes school and latrine rehabilitation, teacher training, provision of textbooks for teachers and provision of school supplies for all teachers and students.

The Mushimbakye School is also receiving support from UNICEF. Support for both schools is provided as part of the primary education acceleration campaign focused on girls' enrolment.

The three agency heads also visited a centre for street children, the Centre Mbongwana, which receives funding from UNICEF and WFP. The centre works with boys of ages 5-18.

Another stop in DR Congo was the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre in Kintambo, which is run by the non-governmental organization ‘La Communaute Presbytérienne de Kinshasa’ (CPK). This centre has been working to provide basic health services and improve the nutritional status of children in and around Kinshasa for the past 20 years.

Meetings with Presidents

On other occasions during their Great Lakes trip, the UN leaders met the Presidents of DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, donors and representatives of other UN agencies and partner non-governmental organizations. They also met people driven from their homes by attacks in eastern DR Congo as well as others who have chosen to return home to the three countries after years in exile.

"It is a reality that international aid mainly goes to areas with the most media coverage and this region hasn't been receiving a lot of that," said Mr. Guterres during the agency heads' visit to Rwanda.

The UN leaders flew from Rwanda on Wednesday to Burundi, where 2.2 million people, including refugees and returnees, need food aid in 2006 because of inadequate rainfall, crop disease and poverty. They held talks with the President and visited a feeding centre for malnourished women and children.

Ending their great lakes mission in Bujumbura on Thursday, Mr. Morris and Ms. Veneman travelled to Kenya to meet President Mwai Kibaki while Mr. Guterres went to Tanzania.

Thomas Nybo contributed to this story.




3 March 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on the historic visit to Africa’s Great Lakes Region by the heads of UNICEF, WFP and UNHCR.

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