Uganda strains as thousands flee violence in DR Congo's Ituri

Renewed conflict between militias connected to Lendu farmers and Hema herders sparks refugee crisis.

    Nearly two-thirds of those arriving in Uganda from Ituri are children, according to the UN [Samir Tounsi/AFP]
    Nearly two-thirds of those arriving in Uganda from Ituri are children, according to the UN [Samir Tounsi/AFP]

    About 7,500 people fleeing violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have arrived in neighbouring Uganda since the beginning of the month, adding pressure on already overstretched facilities.

    More than 300 people crossed the border every day since June 1, escaping a wave of resurgent inter-ethnic conflict in the DRC's Ituri province, which has killed at least 160 people over the past two weeks, the UN refugee agency's (UNHCR) spokesman Andrej Mahecic said in a statement on Tuesday.

    The outbreak of violence is part of a decades-long conflict between militias connected to Lendu farmers and Hema herders.

    "Recent arrivals speak of extreme brutality," Mahecic said. "Armed groups are said to be attacking villages, torching and looting houses, and killing men, women and children."

    Most fleeing to Uganda are travelling via Lake Albert, according to UNHCR, with the overall number of people displaced in Ituri since early June now estimated to be 300,000. 

    At one camp in Ituri, Milosi Neema said she fled her village after her husband was killed by assailants. 

    "I'm living in this camp with my five children because I cannot afford to go to Uganda... I have to stay here to get food for my children," said Neema.

    The gold-rich region has experienced extreme violence before, with more than 60,000 people killed and 500,000 others displaced as a result of intense clashes between the Hema and Lendu between 1999 and 2003, according to the UN.

    Uganda 'overwhelmed'

    The most recent eruption of violence has put increased strain on Uganda, where transit and reception facilities are said by UNHCR to be "overwhelmed".

    "Shelter and basic relief items are the urgent priority... In addition, buses and trucks are needed to transport refugees from border point reception centres to settlement areas," Mahecic said.

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    "Many refugees need immediate psycho-social care and counselling for trauma... Clinics are in need of more doctors and more medicines ... [and] already overcrowded and understaffed schools need significant support to meet the educational needs of the new arrivals," he added. 

    More people are expected to cross into Uganda from Ituri with a military offensive against armed groups ongoing.

    In DRC, 4.5 million people have fled various conflicts across the vast central African nation. Parts of the country's eastern region have experienced insecurity and armed conflict since the early 1990s.

    Ituri and North Kivu province, just to the south, are also trying to halt a major epidemic of Ebola that has claimed more than 1,500 lives since it emerged last August. Both provinces are on DRC's eastern border with Uganda.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News