The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has warned of a growing humanitarian catastrophe in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where fighting between government forces and armed groups has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee.
UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh said on Friday the violence had prompted nearly 300,000 people to flee across the Rutshuru and Masisi territories of the DRC’s North Kivu province in February.
“Civilians continue to pay the heavy and bloody price of conflict, including women and children who barely escaped the violence and are now sleeping out in the open air in spontaneous or organised sites, exhausted and traumatised,” he told reporters in Geneva.
Expressing “great alarm”, Saltmarsh said the UNHCR and its partners were stepping up humanitarian assistance but that difficulties remain in accessing displaced people in some parts of North Kivu because of the violence.
In mid-January, the UN aid agency OCHA said 12 humanitarian organisations had been forced to limit their operations in parts of Ituri province because of increased attacks.
Scores of armed groups roam the vast mineral-rich eastern DRC, many of them a legacy of two regional wars that flared at the end of the 20th century.
In 2021, the government declared a state of siege in North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri, placing them under military rule in an attempt to address the security crisis – but the violence has persisted.
On Thursday, an overnight attack on the village of Mukondi, 30km (19 miles) south of the city of Beni in North Kivu province, killed at least 36 people. A local official and the head of a civil society group said the assailants were believed to be members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) – a Ugandan armed group based in eastern DRC that has pledged allegiance to ISIL (ISIS) and wages frequent deadly raids on villages.
Separately, sources quoted by AFP news agency said clashes between the M23 armed group and government forces erupted again on Friday near Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
The early morning fighting took place near the village of Murambi, fewer than 30km (18 miles) west of Goma, local officials said.
Murambi is the last settlement before the town of Sake, considered the city’s last bulwark.
“The population is starting to panic again,” Leopold Busanga, a spokesman for civil society groups in Sake, told AFP.
Fighting was also reported further north, about 70km (43 miles) from Goma, an official there said.
Goma has been under threat since the M23 launched an offensive last year after reviving from dormancy in 2021. The DRC accuses its neighbour Rwanda of supporting the group, something that Kigali denies, and regional countries have deployed a joint force aimed at stabilising the region. Several attempts at a ceasefire have failed to stop the violence.
The reports of the fighting came hours before the expected arrival in Goma of an aid mission, the first in an airlift announced on Saturday by the European Union to help the beleaguered city.
The trading hub of more than a million people that has also seen an influx of thousands of displaced people lies on the shore of Lake Kivu.
Most of the land routes to Goma have now been cut off, leaving flights the only reliable way to bring in supplies. The EU plane is carrying emergency shelters, medication and hygiene kits.
A UN Security Council delegation arrived in DRC late on Thursday on a three-day visit to assess the situation in Goma. The team will meet President Felix Tshisekedi and fly to the city on Saturday.