DRC: 150,000 children miss school as violence continues in the east

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has forced most schools in Rutshuru territory to close, leaving an estimated 150,000 children out of class, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said.

"Most children have been displaced," Jaya Murthy, UNICEF communications specialist, told IRIN. "Other children are in the area but unable to attend school."

Fighting resumed late August in North Kivu between forces from rebel group Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), led by former general, Laurent Nkunda, and the regular Congolese army allied with militias.

Since violence intensified two weeks ago, 85 percent of the 310 schools in the territory have suspended classes, while school buildings have been occupied by displaced civilians and the Congolese army.

According to UNICEF, the armed groups in the area are also continuing to recruit children as young as 14 in Kitchanga, Rugare and Rutshuru.

"From reports, we know that recruitment by all armed groups, except the Congolese army, is continuing in the area," Murthy added. "For example, up to 400 people have been recruited in Kitchanga area - ranging from 14 to 40 years of age."

An estimated 3,000 children were being held by the armed groups before the recent violence broke out, but the numbers are expected to soar.

The violence has sent civilians fleeing from their homes. According to UNICEF, tens of thousands of people are moving north due to ongoing looting in Kanyabayonga.

These include 15,000 to Kisharo, 15,000 to Vitchumbi, 5,000 to Butembo; and thousands between Kiwandja and Rutshuru. The displaced face a high risk of cholera and measles, increasing child malnutrition, and children being separated from their families.

"The situation is still tense, fluid, volatile," Murthy said. "Fighting erupts in different areas almost on a daily basis."

On 13 November, UN Radio reported two skirmishes between government troops and the armed PARECO movement. It also said 3,000 displaced civilians had recently arrived in Goma, the provincial capital.

At least 250,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, according to aid workers, including more than 65,000 civilians who are camped at Kibati, a few kilometres from the frontline.

The UN, which has a 17,000-strong peacekeeping force in eastern DRC, is considering sending in an additional 3,000 men to try to contain the situation.