The UN Refugee agency said on Friday it was "greatly alarmed" by clashes between government forces and armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that had caused hundreds of thousands to flee.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh said the violence had prompted nearly 300,000 people to flee across Rutshuru and Masisi territories of DRC's North Kivu Province in February.
"Civilians continue to pay the heavy and bloody price of conflict, including women and children who barely escaped the violence and are now sleeping out in the open air in spontaneous or organised sites, exhausted and traumatised," he said.
Increased attacks in Ituri
In mid-January, the UN aid agency OCHA said 12 humanitarian organisations had been forced to limit their operations in parts of Ituri Province because of increased attacks.
DRC government declared a state of siege in North Kivu and neighbouring Ituri in 2021 in an attempt to stem rampant militia violence in the country's vast mineral-rich east. But the killings and rebel activity have persisted.
Marie Dzedza has lost hope of leaving a displaced people's camp and returning to her village in the eastern Congolese province of Ituri, where violence is surging while regional attention focuses on a conflict in a neighbouring territory.
Five years ago, Dzedza lost both her hands in a machete attack during a raid by members of the Codeco group, one of several militias that have destabilised the densely forested province in DRC and forced 1.5 million to flee their homes since late 2017.
"We miss our old lives," she said at the Kigonze camp she shares with nearly 14,000 others, who live in rows of featureless white tents squeezed onto a clearing outside the provincial capital Bunia.
"I hate my life here ... This is why I am asking the Congolese government to do something to restore peace, so that I can return home."
The prospects are not good. Attacks have increased significantly in recent months with 419 civilians killed between December 1 and mid-February, according to internal UN data, even as a major offensive by a different rebel group has drawn some Congolese forces away to North Kivu province to the south.
In Ituri, "what we are seeing is an upsurge," said Bintou Keita, head of the UN's peacekeeping mission, Monusco, which is due to pull out of Ituri and the rest of eastern Congo by 2024, according to a transition plan that is under discussion.
On an official visit to Ituri on March 1, her first in months, Keita and local authorities blamed Codeco and a rival militia called Zaire for the spiralling bloodshed and reprisal attacks.
The groups, which operate in remote areas and do not have official spokespeople, could not be reached for comment.
In January, mass graves containing 49 bodies, including those of women and children, were discovered in two villages in Ituri, killings attributed by the UN to Codeco.
The insecurity has made it harder to deliver aid to those who were able to escape such attacks, worsening the humanitarian crisis, international aid groups have warned.
In mid-January, OCHA said 12 humanitarian organizations had been forced to limit their operations in parts of Ituri because of increased attacks since the start of 2023.
Nevertheless, the steep security deterioration in Ituri has been overshadowed by the recent turbulence in North Kivu. The latter has caused greater political and diplomatic fallout with Congo, the UN, and other nations accusing Rwanda of backing the M23 rebels there. Rwanda denies it backs the M23.
Ituri's military governor Lieutenant-General Johnny Luboya N'Kashama said the army was seeking talks with the armed groups, while also conducting large-scale patrols with Monusco and building new bases so it can react quicker to reports of attack.