United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has highlighted the dire situation of some three million displaced children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who are facing brutal militia violence and extreme hunger.
Whole villages have been set ablaze, health centres and schools ransacked, and entire families – including children – hacked to death, in a series of merciless attacks in eastern DRC by fighters using machetes and heavy weapons, UNICEF said in a news release.
Communities have been forced to flee with only the barest of possessions.
UNICEF Representative for the DRC, Edouard Beigbeder, said “displaced children know nothing but fear, poverty, and violence. Generation after generation can think only of survival.
“Yet the world seems increasingly indifferent to their fate. We need the resources to continue helping these children have a better future.”
There are some 5.2 million displaced people in the DRC, about half of whom were displaced in the last twelve months, according to UN data. The overall figure includes about three million children.
Families forced from their homes and villages are compelled to live in crowded settlements lacking safe water, health care and other basic services. Others are taken in by impoverished local communities. In the most violence-afflicted provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika, more than 8 million people are acutely food insecure.
Sharp rise in violations against children
UNICEF’s report Fear and Flight: An uprooted generation of children at risk in the DRC, released on Friday, underscores the gravity of the crisis.
The report recounted testimony of children who have been recruited as militia fighters, subjected to sexual assault, and suffered other grave violations of their rights – abuses that registered a 16 per cent increase in the first six months of 2020 compared to the previous year.
However, delivering relief assistance to populations who have been displaced is complex, and often hampered by insecurity and a weak transport infrastructure.
A rapid response programme directed by UNICEF with partner NGOs offers a temporary solution, providing tarpaulins, cooking utensils, jerrycans and other essentials to nearly 500,000 people in 2020, said the UN agency.
According to Typhaine Gendron, the Chief of Emergency for UNICEF in DRC, such emergency distributions help deal with the “immediate shock” of being displaced. They are also part of an integrated response that looks to address a family’s broader needs in health, nutrition, protection, water and sanitation (WASH), or education, she added.
While the volatile security situation is a major concern for aid workers and UNICEF personnel engaged in the humanitarian response, additional funds are also desperately needed. UNICEF’s 2021 humanitarian appeal for the country, amounting to about $384.4 million is only 11 per cent funded.
Without timely and adequate funding, UNICEF and its partners will not be able to provide critical services addressing the acute humanitarian needs of almost three million Congolese children and their families and protect and promote their rights, the agency warned.
UNICEF Representative Beigbeder stressed the urgency, “without sustained humanitarian intervention, thousands of children will die from malnutrition or disease, and displaced populations will not receive the basic lifesaving services they depend on.”
Expressing deep concern last October, UNICEF said thousands of children continue to suffer grievously as unrelenting violence persists across eastern DRC.
Since the beginning of 2020, the brutality and chaos unleashed during longstanding conflict in the province of Ituri have deteriorated further, worsening conditions for children, according to the UN agency.
The conflict-ravaged, and mineral-rich eastern DRC has been plagued by violence stretching over decades of brutal fighting that has forced millions of civilians from their homes – many of them numerous times.
Impact on children
Militia attacks in populated areas have not only left hundreds dead but also reports of children being maimed, murdered or recruited by armed groups.
Between January and June, 91 children had been killed, 27 maimed and 13 sexually abused, according to UNICEF.
Meanwhile, more than 1.6 million people, the majority of whom are women and children, are estimated to be internally displaced; nearly 18 health facilities have been looted or destroyed; and attacks against more than 60 schools have left around 45,000 children out of the classroom.
And these are only the verified incidents, the actual numbers are likely to be significantly higher.
Millions in need
According to the World Food Programme (WFP), national data shows that about four-in-10 people throughout the country are food insecure, with some 15.6 million suffering crisis or emergency levels of hunger.
Most of the more than five million Congolese displaced inside the country live in makeshift camps and urban areas with poor sanitation and healthcare, particularly dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, as malaria and cholera exacerbate the hunger challenge.
And in Ituri, 2.4 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, UNICEF said.
While at least 150,000 people – including over 87,000 children – have been assisted by UNICEF and its partners on the ground with healthcare and nutrition, protection, education, water and sanitation between January and August, insecurity in the province continues to undermine humanitarian efforts.
Working with partners, the agency has been able to reintegrate 365 children from armed forces and militant groups, trace their families and provide psychosocial support.
It has also supplied more than 87,000 vulnerable children with safe access to community spaces for socialization, play and learning, and equipped 68 child victims of sexual violence with medical, psychosocial and legal assistance.
And through the UNICEF rapid response mechanism, more than 140,000 people, including 85,000 children, have received non-food items, shelter and hygiene products.
However, insufficient funding is limiting the scope of the UN agency’s activities.
UNICEF pointed out that its DRC Humanitarian Action for Children appeal has a 74 per cent funding gap, flagging that while estimated at $318 million, the shortfall stands at $235 million