By Richard Marsden
At least 90,000 children have been forced to flee from their homes in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, amid an escalation of violence that has seen more than 70 villages burned.
The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that clashes between ethnic groups in the province to the north of the country have displaced an estimated 66,000 children internally and sent another 25,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring Uganda.
Violence between different ethnic groups over land and cattle disputes erupted in December in the Djugu region and has intensified during February. More than 76 gun-weapon killings have been recorded, mostly against women and children.
At least three health centres and seven schools have been looted or burned, depriving children of healthcare and education.
Prayers and concerns from the Church
The news comes just days after Pope Francis led a World Day of Prayer for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
Earlier this month, Congolese Catholic bishops, at their Extraordinary Assembly in the capital Kinshasa, denounced the “appalling and frightening deterioration of the situation in the country, where citizens are victims of bloody repressions”.
Serious risk of disease
In reference to the current violence in the north of the country, the UN agency says that many of the internally displaced have settled in churches, schools and hospitals around Bunia, the capital of Ituri province. They are exposed to bad weather and have limited access to food and clean water, running a serious risk of contracting diarrhoea and cholera.
Nearby the hospital in Bunia, UNICEF and its partners identified 70 unaccompanied children and 245 separated from their families with an urgent need of care.
A programme of rapid response has been activated by the agency to people that have been displaced. Earlier this month, UNICEF and other organisations distributed blankets, mats, soap, and buckets to the needy population. They also installed a water tank in Ituri province.
The agency is calling on all parties to protect children from violence and to seek a peaceful solution to their differences