February 14, 2018 / 5:54 PM / 2 days ago

'We are overwhelmed,' senior refugee official says of east Congo crisis

BENI, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - A humanitarian disaster in eastern Congo is quickly worsening as aid agencies have been forced to pull back due to growing insecurity and slashed budgets, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said on Wednesday.

More than 4.4 million people have been displaced in Democratic Republic of Congo amid rampant violence that has been aggravated by a political crisis sparked by President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his mandate in 2016.

While conflict in the central Kasai region eased last year, persistent clashes between government soldiers, local militias and foreign rebels in the eastern borderlands have worsened.

“We are overwhelmed and underfunded,” NRC head Jan Egeland told Reuters in an interview in the town of Beni in North Kivu province.

“The crisis in Congo, especially here in the eastern part of Congo, is phenomenal. It is horrible. And we do not have the global solidarity and response that we need,” he said.

The area around Beni has witnessed some of the worst violence in recent years.

More than 800 people were killed -- often hacked to death with machetes during the night -- around the town between 2014 and 2016.

Congolese authorities say the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan Islamist rebel group, were behind the killings, but Congolese army officers have also been accused of involvement.

More than 532,000 people fled their homes in just two territories along the border with Uganda in 2016 and 2017.

CIVILIANS “IN CROSSFIRE”

Last week the United Nations warned that a military offensive launched there in January by Congolese troops to root out the ADF is likely to displace nearly 370,000 more people.

“Just outside of town, just here in Beni, there were several massacres in recent days,” said Egeland, who served as the United Nations’ top humanitarian official in 2003-2006.

“These clashes go on endlessly. The civilian population comes in the crossfire.”

Much of eastern Congo has remained a volatile patchwork of rebel and militia fiefdoms despite the ending of a civil war in 2003 that had killed millions, most from hunger and disease.

Now, despite the presence of the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping force, many fear the political crisis sparked by delayed elections is pushing it back to the brink of war.

“Of course the United Nations operation also has to be more effective in providing protection because over these last 15 years it’s not really gotten better. The last two years it has actually gotten much, much worse,” he said.

Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Aaron Ross and Gareth Jones

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