DR Congo ethnic violence stopping refugee returns: UN

Head of UN peacekeeping force says deteriorating security interrupting the return process and causing new displacements.

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    In this file photo from June, Congolese victims of ethnic violence are seen at a makeshift camp for internally displaced people in Bunia, Ituri [File: Olivia Acland/Reuters]
    In this file photo from June, Congolese victims of ethnic violence are seen at a makeshift camp for internally displaced people in Bunia, Ituri [File: Olivia Acland/Reuters]

    United Nations - Violence and disease have displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the threat of new clashes is stopping civilians from going back to their homes, a United Nations official has warned.

    Leila Zerrougui, head of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping force in the country, described on Wednesday "simultaneous emergency situations" including outbreaks of Ebola and measles, interethnic bloodshed and rampaging militias.

    Zerrougui blasted "spoilers" in Ituri Province for "seeking to play on ethnic tensions" between Lendu farmers and Hema herders that have resulted in violent clashes and forced more than 350,000 people from their homes.

    "The deterioration of the security situation is interrupting the return process that had been gradually taking place since 2018," she told the UN Security Council.

    This was "causing new displacements towards Bunia [city] and forcing the humanitarian community to reorient its assistance to the most vulnerable populations," she added.

    Ituri clashes

    Interethnic clashes in the turbulent, gold-rich Ituri region have also left 733,000 people needing aid handouts, Zerrougui told the UN Security Council via video link from the DRC capital, Kinshasa.

    Ituri province has a history of ethnic violence, with more than 60,000 people killed and 500,000 others displaced by clashes between rival groups between 1999 and 2003, according to the UN.

    Across the country as a whole, unrest has displaced 4.5 million people since December 2017 and more than 850,000 others have crossed the DRC's borders into Angola, Zambia and other neighbours, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR.

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    The DRC was destabilised by the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s and other regional fighting that has left much of the country effectively run by armed groups.

    UN peacekeepers want to help end the fighting, said Zerrougui. MONUSCO is assisting Congolese officials to arrest Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, of the Nduma Defence of Congo-Renové (NDC-R), a militia behind "conflict-related sexual violence" in North-Kivu, she added.

    Ebola emergency

    Zerrougui also described an Ebola outbreak that has killed more than 1,700 people - more than two-thirds of those who contracted it - since it emerged in the country's eastern North-Kivu and Ituri provinces last August.

    Combined, those two provinces border Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan.

    Health workers sent to tackle the virus have faced "high levels of community distrust" and violence from armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) armed group and the Mai Mai militia, said Zerrougui.

    "This confluence of factors has resulted in a deadly environment for the people working to counter Ebola, to the point of being specifically threatened and killed by armed groups," Zerrougui told the New York-based council.

    Last week the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in Congo's east as an international health emergency. Ebola is highly infectious hemorrhagic fever that spreads through bodily fluids.

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    Meanwhile, a deadly measles outbreak in eastern DRC has claimed some 2,000 lives since the beginning of this year - a death toll that is "even more than Ebola", warned Zerrougui.

    Power struggle

    On Monday, DRC's health minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga resigned in protest after being stripped of responsibility for handling the country's Ebola outbreak, the latest sign of tensions between rival factions in Kinshasa.

    DRC politics has been wracked by a power struggle since Felix Tshisekedi won a surprise victory in a December 30 presidential vote against outgoing President Joseph Kabila's favoured candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    The United States envoy to the UN, Cherith Norman Chalet, blamed former President Kabila's supporters and said Washington would slap sanctions and travel bans on anybody who hurts "peace, stability, and security" in DRC. 

    "The absence of a national government, due primarily to the intransigence of political actors aligned with former President Kabila, compromises all other progress to which the Congolese people aspire," Chalet told the council.

    "We call upon those blocking government formation to adopt the flexibility required to seat a cabinet and fulfil the hopes of the Congolese people for a better future."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News