Thousands of people have fled the town of Punia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following threats to their ethnic community, according to UN sources.
“Nearly a third of the population of Punia, a town of 53,000 inhabitants, has reportedly fled to the forest or to other areas around the town,” Sylvestre Ntumba, from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told media in Goma on 13 February.
“They say there has been harassment by elements of the national army,” he said, saying this is the reason people have given for fleeing.
In a report released on 6 February, OCHA in DRC said: “Army elements have allegedly been threatening people in Punia on the basis of their ethnic identity.”
“Schools and businesses have been paralyzed… notably because of harassment by the security forces and various scare stories,” the report said.
“They all need food, healthcare, shelter and essential household items,” Ntumba said, adding that the roads are impassable to vehicles, though the area is accessible by air.
Fabienne Pompey, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), told media that WFP has started airlifting supplies to Punia. Even so, supplying the town will be difficult, she said, as there are only two lorries available and traveling the 12km from the airstrip to the town takes three hours.
WFP flew 20 tons of food into Punia between 12 and 14 February, but Pompey says this is only enough to feed 8,000 people for five days. The agency is working with the Catholic charity Caritas to identify the most vulnerable of those displaced people from Punia; it is planning to conduct another airlift soon.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the NGO Merlin are present in Punia. Merlin coordinator Amy Beaumont told IRIN that the NGO is working with UNICEF to bring in more medical assistance, including mobile clinics and a vaccination campaign against measles.
Ntumba said many of the people who fled Punia were among the 40,000 who had already been displaced from villages in the area.
The security situation deteriorated in Punia following clashes between the army and insurgents in the area.
OCHA reports that between 24 January and 1 February more than 26,000 people were forced to flee to the town as insurgents known as Raia Mutomboki, (“angry citizens”) approached.
The army then launched an offensive against the Raia Mutomboki, driving them back 70km from Punia, towards Kasese, a mining town.
According to the OCHA report, the flare-up of violence in the area is due to several factors including discontent over harassment by security services, “alleged extortion, forced work and other violence”. Violence is also attributed to the refusal by mining operators to comply with official requirements that minerals to transit through Kindu, the provincial capital, where taxes are collected.
The report says armed groups were used, likely by those with mineral interest, to take control of the airport at Kasese and fly out stocks of minerals.
The authorities in South Kivu and Katanga provinces are also encountering armed group resistance to their attempts to impose stricter controls on the minerals trade.
IRIN attempted to contact the army authorities for comment about the allegations of harassment. The chief of staff of the seventh military region, Col Kodja, based in Kindu, said that only the commanding officer in the region could comment. The officer in charge of military justice in Kindu, Col Kaninga, said he could neither confirm nor deny the allegations.
A police officer in Kindu, who preferred to remain anonymous, said an official delegation had been sent to Kindu to investigate.
*This article was amended on 17 February to correct a geographical reference in the 7th paragraph. WFP has started airlifting supplies to Punia, not Goma, as previously stated.