Over 200,000 people have fled rising violence between the Hema and Lendu tribes in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) northeastern Ituri Province over the past two months, Voice of America (VOA) reported this week, citing U.N. data.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, 1.2 million people have been displaced by interethnic violence in Ituri province alone, with 5 million people in total forced to move in the DRC due to tribal hostility. The Lendu-Hema conflict has been documented for decades and is responsible for Africa’s single largest displaced persons crisis, according to the report. Ituri province is rich in natural resources such as oil and gold, causing the two tribes native to the region to fight over valuable territory.
According to the U.N.’s report, the number of attacks between the Lendu and Hema has increased in recent months, tracing back to December of last year when a “government-led military operation against various armed groups” caused regional tensions to escalate.
Over the past 60 days, the U.N. says its monitors have reported at least 3,000 human rights violations in Ituri Province’s Djugu territory, largely occupied by the Hema. On average, the monitors record 50 attacks per day.
“Displaced people have reported acts of extreme violence with at least 274 civilians killed with weapons such as machetes. More than 140 women were raped and almost 8,000 houses set on fire. The vast majority of those displaced are women and children, many of whom are now living under crowded circumstances with host families from the community,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Charlie Yaxley told VOA.
“That, in turn, is also making the social distancing required to prevent the spread of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] extremely difficult as we see many people living inside shelters … and, this again places them vulnerable to possible further attacks, vulnerable to the elements and with little protection in terms of preventing the spread of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus],” Yaxley added.
Access to Ituri province’s Djugu and Mahagi territories has been largely restricted due to the increased violence according to the report, blocking access for the U.N. and private aid workers trying to reach people that need assistance. The U.N. says that the DRC has received just 18 percent of its $154 million aid package from the agency so far, adding to the difficulty of helping the displaced population.
In March, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the DRC’s healthcare system was “on life support” following nearly two years of battle against the country’s most recent Ebola virus outbreak. First detected in August 2018, the latest Ebola outbreak has been concentrated in the northeast of DRC, in the neighboring Ituri and North Kivu provinces. The most recent Ebola outbreak is the DRC’s worst ever, and is the world’s second-largest on record.
DRC health authorities had expected to declare the latest Ebola outbreak officially over in early March, following the discharge of the last known Ebola patient. However, on April 10, a new case was recorded in the city of Beni, located in North Kivu province, which borders Ituri Province. Since then, six additional cases have been documented in the same region.
Half of DRC’s medical facilities lack basic sanitation and clean water, according to UNICEF. In general, most DRC hospitals have operated without sufficient medical supplies and equipment for years, meaning the nation’s healthcare system is poorly equipped to treat the growing number of coronavirus cases in the country.