NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Tens of thousands of children uprooted by worsening conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are at risk of recruitment by armed groups, rape, hunger and cholera, aid agencies warn.
M23 rebels took control of the eastern city of Goma on Tuesday, forcing many of its 1 million residents to leave. On Wednesday, they said they plan to “liberate” the country by marching on the capital, Kinshasa, hundreds of kilometres away.
Some 80,000 people have been newly displaced in the area around Goma since the M23’s latest offensive against the Congolese army began on Nov. 15, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Aid group World Vision estimates there are 200,000 children younger than 18 in Goma, who all need protection.
“We know from the recent practices of the groups involved in this latest fighting that unaccompanied children in this part of (Congo) are in immediate and real danger of forcible recruitment into armed groups,” said World Vision’s Dominic Keyzer, in the Rwandan border town of Gisenye.
“Children have nowhere to turn, we can’t get to them, and we are hearing reports of groups arming people around Goma.”
A former child soldier told him his friends were being given weapons and being told to go and fight the rebels, he added in a statement.
“IDPs (internally displaced persons) are locking up or hiding their children fearing attack and forced recruitment,” Olivia Kalis, policy and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Congo, said in a statement.
There is also an epidemic of sexual violence in eastern Congo, which has not known real peace since the end of the most recent 1998-2003 war, in which an estimated 5 million people died from fighting and conflict-related disease.
Most rape victims are girls aged between eight and 17, with one in 10 less than 10 years old, the NRC said. Children are also recruited to fight or serve as ‘wives’ for the region’s dozen armed groups.
On Monday, Kanyaruchinya camp, hosting some 60,000 displaced people, emptied in a few hours as the rebels advanced on Goma, the capital of North Kivu, about 10km south of the camp.
“Fighting between the rebel group and the Congolese army is displacing the displaced again, stretching the coping abilities of an already exhausted community,” said Sebastian Albuja, head of the Africa department at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
Children are becoming separated from their parents as they flee, putting them at even greater risk. The United Nations children’s fund (UNICEF) provided biscuits and medicine to 500 unaccompanied children in Goma’s Don Bosco Centre earlier this week.
“UNICEF is particularly concerned about the psychological trauma faced by children, in addition to the risk of cholera outbreaks following a recent upsurge of the disease among IDPs in Kanyaruchinya,” the agency said.
The camp is the largest of several dotted around Goma for those who have fled intensified fighting this year. In North and South Kivu, 767,000 people have left their homes since January, according to Oxfam. The number of IDPs in Congo hit 2.2 million in early August - its highest point in three years.
Some 60,000 people have also fled to neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been guiding many of those displaced around Goma to seek help in Mugunga 1 and 3 camps, 15km south of the city.
Others are heading to camps in neighbouring South Kivu Province, according to medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which is providing health, water and sanitation services in Mugunga 1 camp.
“Medical teams report thousands of new arrivals since yesterday with people desperate to be registered,” it said on Tuesday. “Conditions in many camp locations are precarious, with a lack of food distribution.”
The M23 rebels, widely believed to be backed by Rwanda, took up arms in April complaining Kinshasa had failed to comply with a deal that ended a previous rebellion in 2009.
The mutiny was led by General Bosco Ntaganda who defected from Congo's army after President Joseph Kabila announced plans to arrest him. The International Criminal Court has sought Ntaganda since 2006 on charges of conscripting child soldiers, and this year issued a second warrant against him for murder, ethnic persecution and rape.
While the M23 is officially led by Sultani Makenga, the United Nations says Ntaganda controls the rebellion on the ground.
The uprising also reflects local ethnic conflicts intertwined with Rwanda's desire to maintain influence over a region on its borders rich in diamonds, gold and coltan, used in mobile phones.
Human Rights Watch has documented widespread war crimes committed by the M23 rebels, including summary executions, rapes and forced recruitment.