A UN relief convoy which entered a rebel-captured zone of east Congo on Monday for the first time since heavy fighting last week found deserted refugee camps emptied of their tens of thousands of occupants.
“All the camps are empty. They have all left. All the shelters have been destroyed ... nothing remains,” Francis Nakwafio Kasai, a field officer with the UN. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Reuters.
The UN convoy, carrying aid workers and medical supplies and escorted by UN troops, crossed the conflict front line in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province to reach the rebel-held town of Rutshuru.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR had said it feared that at least 50,000 displaced civilians may have abandoned, or been forced out of, unprotected camps around Rutshuru, which is 70 km north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.
Kasai said humanitarian workers were trying to establish whether the camps’ occupants were expelled, or had fled. Some may have sought safer areas, or returned home, he said.
Many were feared to be roaming the bush, seeking shelter and help after fleeing attacks by Tutsi fighters loyal to rebel General Laurent Nkunda. The UN says renegade Congolese army soldiers have also carried out killings, lootings and rapes.
UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs launched the coordinated mission as African and Western governments sought to organise a regional summit this week to bring together the presidents of Congo and Rwanda to discuss the conflict on their common border.
Rebel chief Nkunda has declared a ceasefire, which is holding, but aid agencies have called the humanitarian situation “catastrophic” and say that tens of thousands of civilians are in urgent need of shelter, food, water and medical care.