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U.N. starts feeding Congolese who fled fighting

  • Story Highlights
  • U.N. delivering food to camps in dangerous rebel-held territory in east Congo
  • This is World Food Program's first large-scale food delivery to area since October
  • Armed men make it too dangerous to harvest food from gardens
  • 1 million displaced, cholera a danger; malnutrition in children at "emergency levels"
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(CNN) -- The U.N. World Food Program started distributing several tons of food to rebel-held areas of eastern Congo for the first time since October, a food program spokesman said Friday.

Peter Smerdon said a dozen trucks, escorted by a U.N. peacekeeping force, brought in food Friday to distribute in Rutshuru and Kiwanja, towns north of Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Although some people in that area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have farms or grow their own food, they say it is too dangerous for them to harvest their crops, Smerdon said.

He said one man at a distribution center told aid workers that when he arrived at his field, armed men told him to go away. They told him they would sell the food, he said.

There is also some food for sale, "but a lot of people simply can't afford it," Smerdon said.

He said malnutrition rates in the Rutshuru district for children under the age of 5 are at "emergency levels."

The World Food Program said 10 of the trucks arriving Friday carried 100 metric tons of food for the first four days of distributions in the two towns; two others were carrying additional food for "nutrition work" in Rutshuru.

Food was distributed in Rutshuru stadium and in Kiwanja's main church, the WFP said. The agency handed out a 15-day ration that included maize meal, peas, cooking oil and salt, Smerdon said.

Typically, distributed rations include a month's worth of food, but the 15-day ration is "not as heavy ... and is easier for people to carry ... if they are forced to move again by fighting," he said.

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Some 50,000 people had been registered to receive food, and the WFP estimated 12,000 would receive rations on Friday. No other details were available.

On Saturday, the WFP expects to send another 200 metric tons to the area, Smerdon said.

Fighting between government forces and rebels led by Gen. Laurent Nkunda has displaced more than 250,000 people -- adding to roughly 800,000 already driven from their homes by previous violence, according to the United Nations.

"Displaced people are living in extremely difficult conditions in several camps in North Kivu province," Congo's Red Cross Secretary-General Jacques Katshitshi said, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"They shelter in churches, schools or wherever they can find a place to sleep. Additional temporary shelter is needed because people have to vacate the schools to facilitate the resumption of school lessons," Katshitshi said.

"There is a lack of food and water, and the hygiene conditions are terrible. Cases of malnutrition have been discovered in some of the camps. There might just be enough water to drink, but not enough for washing. This, combined with a lack of sanitation such as latrines, is putting people's health at risk."

Jules Pieters of the World Health Organization, speaking to CNN from Rwanda, also characterized the sanitary conditions across the border as "very bad."

"It's cold and wet, and [there is] poor sanitation," he said. He said WHO is bringing in 25,000 kilos (55,115 pounds) of medicine and supplies to Congo. Among those supplies are medicines to help 60,000 people for a month, he said.

"We're bringing in water purification equipment," he added. "Those purification kits can cover at least 30,000 people. To be prepared for an eventual outbreak of diarrhea disease or cholera, we're also bringing 15,000 liters of IV fluids," he said.

WHO had reported Thursday it had launched an anti-cholera operation after cases tripled in some areas to 150 a week.

In North Kivu, at least 997 cholera cases were reported from early October to early November, with most recorded in Rutshuru (466), Goma (263) and Karisimbi (145). In South Kivu during that same period, 855 cholera cases have been reported, it said.

All About U.N.'s World Food ProgrammeDemocratic Republic of the CongoWorld Health OrganizationRwanda

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