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Young Arsène arrives in Rwanda after fleeing the DRC

© UNHCR/A.Bronee. Congolese refugees arrive at the Nkamira Transit Centre in Rwanda.

More than 20,000 people have fled fighting between government forces and renegade troops in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this month and have found shelter in areas near the provincial capital of Goma. Meanwhile, around 6,200 civilians have fled across the border to Rwanda.

Teenager Arsène is all alone; he was separated from his family in the rush to flee fighting between government forces and renegade troops.

"When the soldiers started to shoot, I ran. I thought my family was following," the 15-year-old told UNHCR after arriving at the Nkamira Transit Centre. "I fled only with the clothes on my back," said Arsène, who was wearing his white school shirt under a dark blue sweater. "I am in Rwanda, but I am alone now," the boy said, his voice growing soft.

Most refugees are women, children and the elderly coming from North Kivu's Masisi and Walikale territories, where the fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda left almost 20,000 people internally displaced. Fortunately, more recent news reports state that the army has ended its operations against mutinous troops.

These figures add to the already massive displacement numbers recorded within the DRC, in the neighbouring North and South Kivus. Conflict in the first quarter of the year is estimated to have displaced around 300,000 people, bringing the number of people now uprooted across the country to around 2 million.

Most of the displaced are in South Kivu where, in the first three months of this year, 220,000 people fled clashes between the rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mai Mai militia. In North Kivu, fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda has intensified and displaced tens of thousands.

UNHCR is particularly concerned for some 38,000 displaced people in Masisi and Walikale territories, which are located west and north-west of Goma. Our staff are unable to access these people because of the level of violence. Many are in IDP settlements located in areas now under the influence of rebel or militia groups. 

Displaced people who fled from Mpati have reported cases of harassment, forced labour and extortion. There have also been disturbing reports of rape late last week in Walikale territory.

UNHCR is appealing to all sides to urgently allow humanitarian access to these vulnerable groups and to respect their rights, including the rights to safety, medical help and freedom of movement. 

While the UN refugee agency is discussing longer-term solutions with the Rwandan government, urgent donor support is needed in the short term, as Rwanda is already hosting a large number of displaced Congolese.