Over the course of three weeks, clashes between government forces and an armed group in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) displaced so many civilians that the population of one village, Gety, increased nine-fold, from 5,000 to 45,000.
In all, there are around 100,000 people displaced in the south of Ituri District, part of Orientale Province.
“Cases of rape, kidnappings and other abuses by armed men have been reported,” Madnodje Mounoubai, spokesperson for the UN Stabilization Mission in DRC (MONUSCO), told a recent press briefing, warning that the population was living in precarious conditions.
“Entire villages have been emptied of their populations. Many of those displaced, fearing violence from the belligerents, are believed to still be in the forests in inaccessible areas,” he said.
The most recent clashes, which involved heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket launchers, took place over the weekend of 14-15 September, he said.
“The displaced population have enormous needs,” said Marc Poncin, emergency intervention coordinator for the Swiss branch of the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the only international agency present in Gety.
Poncin told IRIN the main areas of concern were health, shelter and sanitation, as well as access to food and water.
“MSF is not in a position to meet all these needs,” he said.
The fighting pitted the army against the Ituri Patriotic Resistance Front (FRPI), led by former army officer Cobra Matata. In October 2012, Matata suddenly pulled out of a process that would have seen 800 of his men integrated into the regular army.
“Many people are living in dire conditions, staying under trees, in hospitals, schools and a chapel,” said Jems Biensi, a pastor with the Central African Evangelical Community.
“Cholera could break out at any moment,” Biensi said.
MSF has stepped up activities in a nearby hospital and a health centre in Gety, while additional health posts have been opened to handle the 500 daily consultations by displaced people.
“The needs, be they for food or non-food-items, are huge, gigantic,” said Poncin. “We’re worried that the crowded conditions could lend themselves to the spread of diseases, especially somewhere like Gety [60km south of Bunia, the main town in Ituri], where it is cold and rains a lot.”
He added: “The security of doctors must be guaranteed if they are to come and treat people. We are working in an environment where there are lots of armed men around. It is not an ideal environment for bringing help.”
Earlier in September around 100 women from different parts of Irumu Territory called on Cobra Matata to lay down his weapons.
“Papa Cobra, if you can hear us, we are the sons and daughters of your soil. We are sad because we can no longer visit each other. We cannot go to Gety because blood is flowing in that area and we are afraid,” Claudine Amoke, a spokeswoman for the group, said on local radio.