Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled to the inaccessible Masisi area, North Kivu Province, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when fighting broke out are in dire need of aid, humanitarian officials said.
"Poor security has severely limited access beyond Mugunga to the worst affected areas of Masisi, where at least 7,000 more people are believed to be living in the bush in urgent need," Charles Vincent, UN World Food Programme (WFP) representative in the DRC, said on 17 September. Mugunga is 10km west of the provincial capital of Goma.
"There are serious concerns for those who remain beyond WFP’s reach due to insecurity," Vincent said.
The WFP, after days of trying, has finally managed to deliver emergency supplies to Masisi town for malnourished children and civilians injured in the fighting on 11 September.
"Across the east, the situation is getting worse every day for innocent civilians caught up in this conflict. There are too many we are currently unable to reach," he said.
Vincent said the latest outbreak of violence in North Kivu had forced thousands of people to flee their villages. "Over 50,000 have gathered around the village of Mugunga after escaping fighting in Masisi District," he said.
An additional 30,000 are believed to have fled into South Kivu, where the WFP is working through its partners to reach them. However, access to the vast majority of IDPs in the province remains difficult due to insecurity.
In most cases, the WFP required an armed escort from the UN mission in the DRC (MONUC) to reach them, Vincent said.
Preliminary reports from outlying areas of North Kivu, where there are large numbers of IDPs, indicate an alarming increase in rates of acute malnutrition, reaching close to 19 percent, well past the emergency threshold, in some cases.
"We are dealing with a humanitarian emergency that could spiral out of control unless we get proper access to the worst-affected areas," Vincent said.
WFP has distributed 10-day food rations to at least 35,000 people at Mugunga, comprising maize flour, peas, cooking oil and salt.
Meanwhile, the discovery of three mass graves in the village of Rubare, near Rutshuru, 65km north of Goma on 13 September has heightened fears of insecurity.
The mass graves were discovered in an area which had been occupied by the Bravo brigade, which comprised militias loyal to dissident Gen Laurent Nkunda, who had been integrated into the national army. It was also the scene of weeks of fighting between the regular army and the militias.
According to MONUC military spokesperson Maj Gabriel de Brosses, the number of bodies in the graves and their identity was not immediately known.
Insecurity in the province has brought the total number of people displaced in the Kivus to close to one million - two-thirds of them in North Kivu, where 300,000 have fled their homes since November 2006.
A senior analyst has, meanwhile, warned that insecurity in eastern DRC was likely to deteriorate despite a declaration by Nkunda on 14 September that he intended to integrate his forces into the DRC army.
"The situation is likely to get worse, because you see on both sides there is a will to fight," David Mugnier, Central Africa director of the International Crisis Group, told IRIN on 14 September. "They have been stockpiling weapons for almost the last three months," he said.
Nkunda has in the past expressed a willingness to integrate his troops into the regular army, but he has insisted that his demands must first be met.
A self-styled protector of ethnic Tutsis in the region, Nkunda says the DRC government must rid eastern DRC of Hutu militias known as the FDLR, who have links with the perpetrators of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Nkunda accuses the FDLR of abuses against eastern DRC's Tutsi population, but observers have noted that ethnic tensions in the region have worsened since violence erupted between Nkunda's forces and the army.
Both the FDLR and Nkunda’s forces have been accused of acts of brutality against civilians.
"The situation could get worse for the local population," said Mugnier. "We have a risk of epidemic. We don’t know exactly what the consequences will be, but probably more civilians will be killed."
Rival rebel factions and armed militias have long battled for control over resource-rich eastern DRC, often allied along ethnic lines.