A recent humanitarian needs assessment mission conducted jointly by several UN agencies has found widespread humanitarian needs in the region from Uvira to Fizi in South Kivu Province of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Priority domains for intervention were reported to be protection/security, water, health and food security, according to the mission, conducted from 16 to 20 October by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Children's Fund.
The population of the region visited was estimated to be about 375,000 people, including 76,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 44,500 internal returnees and 5,000 returnees from neighbouring Tanzania - many of whom had been refugees for five to seven years. "Hundreds if not thousands" of Rwandan refugees who wished to remain in the DRC were also reported.
The mission reported that although a greater sense of security seemed to have returned among the population, residents remained apprehensive about the possible eruption of renewed hostilities, given the presence of a wide range of armed elements in the region. Some of these elements are the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) former rebel movement and the Mayi-Mayi militias, both now party to the DRC's national transitional government; the Forces pour la defense de la democratie (FDD) and Forces nationales de liberation (FNL) rebels from neighbouring Burundi; and the Interahamwe and ex-FAR, Rwandan Hutu militias and the former Rwandan army, respectively, that fled into the DRC in 1994 following their major role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Although the mission received assurances from various local military authorities that security would be guaranteed for humanitarian actors throughout the region, it said that a "considerable number of people remained displaced in inaccessible areas, with no intention of returning to their homes until their security could be guaranteed by all military actors".
As an illustration of just how precarious the security situation remained in the region, the mission cited one local NGO as having reported that from August to mid-October 2003, 452 women and seven men had been raped along the Makobola-Baraka-Katanga axis.
Among other measures, the mission said that training in international humanitarian law, with particular attention to sexual abuse, was imperative for armed groups, government officials and civil society. Identification and monitoring of vulnerable populations would also be needed.
Food insecurity was found to be closely linked to continued insecurity: despite being a very fertile region, many residents had refused to resume cultivation of their fields, the systematic pillage of crops having become common practice among armed groups. On top of this, the steady return of IDPs and refugees had placed a considerable burden on already food-insecure populations. The mission reported that malnutrition "was clearly visible" among populations to which they had access.
"Urgent" distribution of seeds and tools, as well as food relief to prevent consumption of seeds, was recommended by the mission, which added that rehabilitation of roads would also be necessary to facilitate the eventual transport of harvests from fields to markets.
The health sector was likewise reported to have been devastated: some 80 percent of health centres were heavily damaged or destroyed, in dire need of rapid rehabilitation. Essential medicines were found to be in short supply, if available at all, while access to clean water was often absent - a particular concern given the prevalence of cholera outbreaks in the region.
The mission called for the testing of water supplies, the reconstruction of water provision networks, and the installation of latrines. Furthermore, it said the rehabilitation of health centres, the provision of essential medicines and the resumption of vaccination campaigns - including provision of "cold chain" supplies for the proper storage of vaccines - would be needed.
With regard to habitations and buildings, some 75 percent had been demolished. Any public buildings left standing and in viable condition, such as schools, offices, hospitals, and churches, had been occupied by armed groups.
The education sector was also found to be in shambles: shortages of teachers and materials were commonplace, with many students unable to attend classes because of an inability to pay school fees.
A final report of the mission is due to be issued next week, followed by a special coordination meeting among UN agencies and NGOs to discuss follow-up action.