GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 24, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Thousands of children fleeing a recent upsurge in violence in eastern DRC are at risk of being forcibly recruited into armed groups, said World Vision today.
The majority of people fleeing violence in DRC are children, with some reporting they are doing so to avoid forcible recruitment into armed groups, the aid agency said from Goma.
Despite the release of some of the estimated 30,000 child soldiers since the height of the armed conflict in eastern DRC, there is evidence that children continue to be recruited into the ranks of armed groups. The Government of the DRC needs to immediately order the release of all children within the ranks of its troops, says World Vision.
"Children are hiding in the forest in North Kivu, and we know for certain that nearly two hundred children have been kidnapped by armed groups recently and forced to join in the fighting," said World Vision's Dominic Keyzer in Goma. "Because of the difficult nature of collecting figures, we're worried the number of children being lost to the fighting is much higher."
"We are particularly concerned that the majority of the refugees here in Uganda appear to be children under 15 years of age," said World Vision's Stuart Katwikirize, from the Ugandan side of the border. "Many are separated from their parents, and are struggling to deal with what they've endured."
And in Rwanda, World Vision's Martin Tindiwensi said: "Our main concern is the increasing number of children; 65% of the refugees are children and some are unaccompanied."
Adding to the severity of the situation, said Keyzer, is the ongoing conflict and insecurity are making it nearly impossible for humanitarian organizations to intervene. The fighting has forced World Vision to suspend major, life-saving programs in some areas of eastern DRC, and launch responses in both Uganda and Rwanda.
"The effects of this are just heartbreaking – many children in eastern DRC have lived with violence and uncertainty for the last 20 years, and although they have built up good coping mechanisms, constant displacement exposes them to further risks," said Keyzer.
Forced recruitment into armed groups is just one of many of the risks children are facing as a result of the conflict. Little or no access to clean water, food or health services, let alone schooling or safe places, will exacerbate poverty and child deaths in DRC, said Keyzer.
"The most critical programs we've had to shut down include emergency water and sanitation projects responding to outbreaks of cholera near Rutshuru. The fighting is putting this on hold, and threatening the gains that have been made in eastern DRC over the past few years," he said.
Water and sanitation specialist Jonas Habimana reached Goma late last week after evacuating out of Rutshuru.
"When I was forced to leave, the situation was very desperate. People were afraid, they were running, and now we're receiving reports from our local partners still in Rutshuru that youth are being kidnapped by armed groups," said Habimana.
Building a lasting peace for children caught up in the conflict might be difficult, but needs to be a priority for everyone involved, said Keyzer.
"The UN stabilisation force is overwhelmed, governments remain pre-occupied with the political context of the conflict, but we need guaranteed safe corridors to be able to reach women and children caught up in it. The conflict affects our ability to do our job, every day," he said.
World Vision field staff over the border in Kisoro District, Uganda, where more than 30,000 people are seeking refuge, and in northern Rwanda, where nearly 20,000 are gathered, report suffering of children and women as basic service systems struggle to cope.
"It's an incredibly sad thing to see," said World Vision's Sylvia Nabanoba in Uganda. "There are lots of sick kids in the camp who can't reach the health centre because it's too far – the camp spans over 18 kilometres. I saw a malnourished boy last week who I'm worried will die if he doesn't get attention. His mother was holding back tears as she spoke to me.
"Pregnant women are writhing in pain on a mattress on the floor because there are no beds in the health centre. It makes you feel incredibly angry at those continuing to cause this conflict. No child should be subjected to this," she said.
Tindiwensi in Rwanda said: "Ten children have so far died from malnutrition in the camp. I witnessed the burial of a two-year-old child and seeing the grief her mother was going through was heart-rending."
The protection of children, and their families, has to be the key focus of the Ugandan, Rwandan and DRC governments, and all parties to the conflict, said Keyzer.
"We've seen the difference that can be made when peace gets a chance. Despite the complexity of the fighting, the majority of people are yearning to live in peace after nearly 20 years of upheaval. That message needs to be heard by the few who continue to fight," he said.
World Vision has photos available from the refugee camps, as well on-the-ground staff available for interviews in Goma, Uganda and Rwanda.
SOURCE World Vision