Democratic Republic of Congo

Tens of thousands displaced after attacks in Haut Uélé

More than three weeks after the 'Christmas attacks' on the towns of Faradje and Doruma in Haut Uélé, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) combatants are continuing their devastating assaults against civilians closer and closer to Dungu, in Eastern Province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). New victims add to the previous ones without anyone being able to stop the slaughter.

The MSF team working in Dungu is very worried. They have been flying, with a small Avion Sans Frontières plane, to several of the towns attacked in order to provide assistance to the population. But the assaults are getting closer to Dungu, which was last attacked on November 1.

A couple of days before the attack on Tora on January 17, the towns of Sambia, Subani, Akwa and Tomati were also assaulted, one after the other.

Recently the MSF team has seen the arrival of the first refugees from the affected areas. They first walked to Ndedu, a small town 30km south of Dungu, where they joined displaced people from Dungu, Duru and Bangadi who fled attacks back in October 2008.

Tens of thousands of people are reportedly walking on dust roads south of the Garamba Park to get to Dungu, in search of shelter.

"It is increasingly difficult for the team to assess the need of the displaced populations, set up mobile clinics and, if needed, to refer wounded people to Dungu hospital," said Charles Gaudry, field coordinator for the MSF project while talking of the worsening security conditions.

Insecurity is one of the major constraints to providing medical and humanitarian support. Even traveling by plane is difficult as no one knows what is happening in the small towns where the teams are supposed to land and the LRA's movements are unpredictable. MSF teams cannot stay on the spot longer than a couple of hours, just enough time to assess the patients' situation in health structures, evacuate the most seriously wounded and supply drugs and medical equipment to the often looted clinics.

As one of the few organizations working in the area, MSF believes it is extremely hard to know what is happening in this region where the attacks are multiplying. Knowing how many people have been displaced or even killed in this vast territory where villages and small towns are scattered is impossible.

However the numbers of victims are getting more precise since a Human Rights Watch (HRW) team investigated the events between December 24 and January 13 - referred to as the 'Christmas Massacres' by HRW as many of the victims were killed or abducted in three simultaneous attacks on December 24 and 25, 2008 - and confirmed the killing of more than 600 men, women and children as well as the kidnapping of 500 young people.

It has also been noticed that the number of wounded are few.

Since visiting Faradje and Doruma immediately after the attacks in order to provide emergency care, the MSF team observed that the combatants leave few wounded.

"They obviously came to kill", Dr. Matthieu Bichet, who went to Faradje, Doruma and Bangadi, recently told us. "The couple of wounded people we nursed were clearly left for dead. That is what saved them."

For MSF, the humanitarian situation of those populations is an emergency.

"MSF is reinforcing its teams in order to be more reactive just after the attacks," said Marc Poncin, program manager for DRC in Geneva. "But we also have to acknowledge that in such situations, it is very difficult to intervene for those populations, whose need of support, security and protection is so important. Today, even the security of our medical staff, national or expatriate, is not ensured. So let's imagine what it means for the population."