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Step up relief efforts in Katanga, OCHA urges

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NAIROBI, 24 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - Humanitarian actors in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) must increase efforts to resolve "critical" food shortages and lack of protection for at least 150,000 war-displaced people in Katanga Province, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has said.

In a report on Tuesday detailing the findings of a joint mission it conducted to the province last week together with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies - a Geneva-based global network of NGOs - OCHA said UN agencies and humanitarian organisations should respond urgently to the humanitarian crisis in central Katanga.

The mission said national and international response to the evolving humanitarian crisis in Katanga remained woefully inadequate.

The displaced people fled their homes in the last six months following fighting between Congolese army troops and Mayi-Mayi militiamen.

"Many others remain trapped or hidden in remote and inaccessible locations, making it likely that the actual figure is much higher than 150,000," OCHA said. "Many of these people are living in appalling conditions with alarmingly high malnutrition and mortality rates."

The joint mission visited three sites in Katanga: Mitwaba, Malemba Nkulu and Dubie. Of these, OCHA said, the mission found the most alarming situation in Dubie, where 16,000 displaced people were living in three over-crowded camps.

In one of the camps where 9,000 people were living, it added, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had reported that 10 to 20 people were dying every week of malnutrition-related diseases.

"Because of the lack of food, and in spite of its repeated warnings and requests for help, MSF reports that over the last few months malnutrition rates in these camps have been getting worse, not better," OCHA said.

It said that in January, MSF - which remains the only international humanitarian actor on the ground in Mitwaba and Dubie - gave an informal briefing to the UN Security Council describing central Katanga as "perhaps the most forgotten crisis in a country beleaguered by several under-reported humanitarian emergencies".

In Dubie, apart from MSF feeding programmes for the severely malnourished, the only food distribution for the displaced was at the end of January, when they received from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) enough food to last for 14 days, OCHA said.

"Apart from the severe food shortage, protection is a major concern," OCHA said. "In both Dubie and Mitwaba we witnessed traumatized displaced populations - victims of repeated abuse by both the Mayi Mayi and Congolese army troops. A number of those interviewed spoke of horrific atrocities committed by the Mai Mai. Now many of them are being victimised again, this time by the Congolese army."

Among the mission's recommendations were a rapid response to critical food shortages in Dubie, Mitwaba and others parts of the province; and the deployment of UN and NGO staff to help monitor protection needs in the province.

Under food security, the mission recommended that WFP and the Food and Agriculture Organization should lead the efforts to respond to the serious food shortages facing the displaced.

"WFP should also ensure appropriate monitoring/supervision during food distributions," the mission said. "In addition, planning should begin now to ensure that seeds and tools are provided before the next planting season."

It said the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, should take the lead in ensuring the deployment of appropriate UN and NGO staff to help monitor and follow up on protection needs in Katanga, particularly among the 150,000 newly displaced people.

Regarding increased UN presence in the province, the mission recommended that the UN immediately open antenna offices in both Mitwaba and Dubie. These offices would liaise with local authorities and the military to better protect the civilian population; and provide administrative and logistical support to UN agencies and NGOs that deploy to these places.

OCHA also recommended that the UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, immediately establish a presence in Mitwaba and Dubie.

"If MONUC is unable to establish a permanent presence in these places, OCHA recommends that it immediately initiate regular patrols to these places, by helicopter," it said.


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