WFP airlift to assist 115,000 IDPs in Bunia

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has begun an emergency operation to airlift food to more than 100,000 people in the town of Bunia, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who have been displaced by fighting, WFP announced on Friday.

During the operation, which has been funded entirely by the European Commission (EC), WFP and its implementing partner, German Agro Action (GAA), will deliver 892 mt of food, including maize flour, pulses, beans and vegetable oil, to some 115,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), most of whom are women and children. This food will be sufficient to feed the displaced population in Bunia for one month.

"Most of these people are exhausted and extremely hungry by the time they arrive in Bunia," Felix Bamezon, WFP's country director for DRC, said. "Many of them have been travelling on foot for days, without shelter or much rest and when they finally reach safety, they have no means of getting food. It is a desperate situation that calls for desperate measures - like a food airlift."

Fighting between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups in Ituri District has sent large numbers of men, women and children fleeing towards Bunia, where they also joined many thousands of people displaced by factional fighting in October 2002 from the towns of Epulu and Mambasa in Orientale Province.

Years of war in eastern DRC have destroyed much of the region's infrastructure, ruining roads, wrecking bridges and rendering large areas completely inaccessible. Prevailing insecurity has also stopped WFP from transporting supplies by road to Bunia since August 2002, leaving air transport as the only means of delivering food to the displaced.

A lack of funds and landing clearance from the local authorities prevented WFP from carrying out any relief airlifts until now.

"The start of this operation is a welcome step forward because we will finally be able to assist tens of thousands hungry people," said Bamezon. "But given the high costs of airlifts, delivering food to beneficiaries in this way can only be a short-term solution. In the long term, we need the fighting to stop so we can reach these areas by road."

WFP has chartered a Buffalo plane to deliver the food from Kasese in western Uganda to Bunia. With the plane able to carry eight metric tons of food per trip, the entire operation is likely to last for approximately five weeks. The EC donated just over US $430,000 to cover the full costs of the operation.

Along with Bunia, WFP is also planning to airlift food to other parts of eastern DRC, including the town of Kindu in Maniema Province, where an estimated 120,000 displaced people are in need of food relief in Maniema Province, 20,000 of whom are in Kindu town. Following the recent withdrawal of Rwandan troops, people emerged from their hiding places in the forest and converged on the town, only to find that there was no food available. An airlift operation will begin once insecurity in this area improves.

In total, WFP is currently targeting around 1.5 million IDPs throughout the DRC, whose living conditions and nutritional status are extremely precarious. However, there are still significant numbers of people within the country whom WFP has been unable to reach because of the prevailing insecurity. WFP will be appealing for further resources to assist these people once they have been reached and identified.