Nearly 200 people have been killed and 40,000 displaced since January following a surge of attacks by the ADF militia in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN said Friday, as protests over the massacres brought three cities to a standstill.
The United Nations refugee agency reported an "alarming increase" in attacks by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) -- a historically Ugandan Islamist group present in eastern DR Congo since 1995.
Since the start of the year, attacks blamed on the ADF "have killed nearly 200 people, injured dozens of others, and displaced an estimated 40,000 people in DRC's Beni Territory in North Kivu province as well as nearby villages in Ituri province," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
"In less than three months, the ADF has allegedly raided 25 villages, set fire to dozens of houses and kidnapped over 70 people," he told reporters in Geneva.
The ADF has the reputation of being the bloodiest of 122 militias that plague the eastern DRC. It killed an estimated 465 people in 2020.
According to the Kivu Security Tracker, an NGO that monitors violence in the DRC's troubled east, the group has killed more than 1,200 civilians in the Beni area alone since 2017.
The massacres have become more frequent since the army launched an offensive in October 2019, forcing the ADF to break up into smaller, highly mobile units, say experts.
The latest massacres sparked protests in eastern DR Congo where Beni, Oicha and Butembo cities in North Kivu province were virtually paralysed in response to a call by an organisation called Veranda Mutchanga.
In Oicha, at least one demonstrator died from gunshot wounds after police tried to remove a protest barricade, the local mayor said. In Beni and Butembo, shops were closed and much of normal activity had ceased.
- Funding shortage -
Baloch said the latest surge in attacks appeared to be due to reprisals by armed groups, their search for food and medicine and accusations against communities of sharing information on ADF positions.
Those forcibly displaced this past month had fled to the towns of Oicha, Beni and Butembo.
"The majority are women and children, as men stay behind to protect properties, exposing themselves to the risk of further attacks," Baloch said.
The displaced people, he said, were now living in dire conditions, without shelter, food, water or health care.
Families also lack essential items such as blankets and cooking materials -- a major concern in the context of Ebola and Covid-19.
Even before the recent mass displacement, some 100,000 internally displaced people were already in need of shelter and protection in Beni, according to UNHCR figures.
But funding shortages were seriously limiting the agency's ability to provide shelters and other aid, Baloch warned.
Last year, UNHCR was able to build more than 43,000 family shelters in eastern DRC, but this year it so far has funding to build just a tenth of that.
"Only 4,400 families can be assisted out of hundreds of thousands in need," Baloch said, adding that a vital cash programme for displaced women at risk had also been cut due to lacking funds.
The UN refugee agency urgently needs $2 million (1.7 million euros) to beef up its response in Beni and in Irumu Territory in Ituri, he said.
As of now, the $33 million the agency has requested to provide assistance throughout eastern DRC in 2021 is only 5.5-percent funded.