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UN heads drum up support for vulnerable Congolese

BUKAVU, 1 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - The heads of three United Nations agencies, who are on a joint mission to Africa's Great Lakes region, have identified the alleviation of human suffering, security and protection of vulnerable people as some of the issues vital to stability and peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

"This mission is timely, it comes just as funding for the UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is drying up," said Eusebe Hounsokou, the UNHCR representative in the DRC, on Tuesday in Bukavu, capital of the eastern province of South Kivu. "We hope the mission brought the DRC back to the attention of the international community and that it will result in enhanced funding for our operations in the country."

Hounsokou was speaking after a field visit to South Kivu's port of Baraka, on Lake Tanganyika on the DRC-Tanzania border, where the visiting officials had witnessed the return of 401 Congolese refugees who had fled their homes during the civil war. UNHCR had facilitated the repatriation of some 12,700 Congolese since October 2005; some 126,000 Congolese refugees remain in Tanzania.

At Baraka, Hounsokou said, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris and Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Ann Veneman also visited two primary schools and met victims of war-related violence.

The DRC leg of the joint mission also included talks on Monday with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in the capital, Kinshasa, as well as meetings with DRC-based UN officials and donor representatives. In Bukavu, the officials met Governor Deogratias Buhamba Hamba and representatives of NGOs active in eastern Congo.

Guterres, Morris and Veneman left Baraka on Tuesday for Kigali, Rwanda, where they are scheduled to meet President Paul Kagame and visit several UN projects. From Rwanda, they will travel to Bujumbura, the Burundi capital, for similar activities.

The WFP representative in the DRC, Felix Bamezon, told IRIN on Tuesday in Bukavu that the mission served to emphasise that security and alleviation of human suffering was a concern for all. The unprecedented visit illustrated the importance of joint agency cooperation, he said.

"It is important that the [mission's] momentum and the media coverage translate into greater funding," he said. "The mission stressed the need to remain focused and committed to achieving success in our operations."

Bamezon and Hounsokou observed that their activities in the DRC were "seriously" underfunded. Hounsokou said UNHCR was operating on 10 percent of the funding it required, while Bamezon said the WFP funding shortfall between now and June was US $75 million.

Bamezon said issues such as the alleviation of human suffering, protection of civilians, malnutrition, as well as payment of the country's security forces featured in the talks with Congolese officials and donor representatives.

He said the continued non-payment of Congolese soldiers and policemen had resulted in increased human rights violations such as rape, intimidation of civilians and pillaging. The visiting UN officials had told Congolese officials of the need to resolve these issues urgently.

The external and donor relations officer for UNHCR in the Congo, Jens Hesemann, said the agency was determined to continue its advocacy role on the need to reduce conflict in the country, even after elections have been held.

"One of the concerns all along the trip was the fact that the DRC is going to elections and the people, who have not voted in a long time, have placed high hopes in the ballot," Hounsokou said. "It is important that the DRC should not be abandoned in the period following the elections should the people's expectations [of peace and stability] not be met."

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