November 5, 2008 / 5:02 PM / 10 years ago

Hunger and fear stalk Congo refugee camps

KIBATI, Congo (Reuters) - Clutching a small pack of high-energy biscuits, Clementine Riziki slowly chews her first meal in more than a week.

Congolese civilians displaced by fighting queue at a food distribution center in the town of Kibati,eastern Congo, November 5, 2008. REUTERS/Sarah Elliott

Nine days ago, she fled her village in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province when attacking Tutsi rebels burnt down her house and stole her belongings. To compound her worries, her family has since doubled in size.

Amid the chaos, debris and noise of a makeshift camp for tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the violence, Riziki gave birth this week to twins, just a few kilometres (miles) down the hill from the rebel front line.

Breastfeeding her tiny twins, Olive and Olivier, Riziki told Reuters: “I fled with nothing and had to walk for six hours to this camp in Kibati.”

“This is the first time I’ve eaten in 9 days,” she said.

Her twins, Olive and Olivier, were born amid a humanitarian emergency in a region which the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF calls “the worst place in the world to be a child.”

Around her, amid volcanic dust and rubble, thousands of families huddle under blankets and umbrellas.

Sleeping out in the open, some even wrap themselves in banana leaves at night to find some protection from the cold.

Riziki’s plight is typical of that of an estimated 200,000 hungry, frightened civilians who are crammed into camps outside and around the North Kivu provincial capital Goma, after fleeing a Tutsi rebel offensive last week and militia and army killings.

They may be the lucky ones. Tens of thousands more are feared to be roaming North Kivu’s bush-covered hills, desperately seeking safe shelter, food and water.

The United Nations and foreign aid groups are scrambling to cope with an emergency described as “catastrophic” by relief workers in a country where more than 5 million people have died in a decade from conflict, hunger and disease.

Like others displaced by the fighting, Riziki faced a difficult choice: to wait in Kibati for the aid agencies to deliver long-overdue food, or risk crossing the front line in the hope of salvaging something from the remains of her home.

FRESH FIGHTING

Two weeks ago, Riziki was selling salt and vegetables in the local market of her home village.

Now she roams the Kibati camp all day, chasing rumours of food distributions which so far have been limited to emergency rations for children.

After last week’s heavy fighting, which forced many aid workers briefly to evacuate Goma, U.N. relief agencies and humanitarian NGOs are rushing to distribute supplies and provide medical care for the displaced.

But fresh fighting on Tuesday and Wednesday, which the U.N. said involved Tutsi rebels and pro-government Mai-Mai militia, disrupted aid operations around Rutshuru, north of Goma.

Another resident of the Kibati camp, Sebeya Hakizimana, said many were still going hungry there despite the aid efforts.

“Every day, people are dying here, mostly the old and the very young,” he said, hefting a bundle of firewood.

“We live a difficult life here, there is no food, there is no water, there is famine,” he added.

North Kivu’s long-suffering civilians have been clamouring for more protection, not just from the Tutsi rebels loyal to renegade General Laurent Nkunda, but also from marauding army soldiers and Mai-Mai militia who have killed, looted and raped.

Hakizimana said he would welcome more foreign troops, perhaps from Europe, to protect civilians and reinforce the 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force already in Congo.

A woman displaced by fighting sits with her two children at a feeding centre in the Don Bosco Shelter near the city of Goma in eastern Congo, November 4, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer

“Even if we could return home there is nothing there, everything is burnt,” he said.

“It will be difficult to start again.”

(For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/)

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Tim Pearce

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