KANYARUCHINYA, Congo – Drenching rain punctuated by frightening bursts of thunder and forked lightning on Wednesday compounded the misery of some 280,000 refugees from Congo's eastern rebellion, whose plight was highlighted by a visit from the U.N. humanitarian chief.
Baroness Valerie Amos trudged through puddles of muddy water on the outskirts of Goma, the eastern provincial capital, to greet people who had rivulets of water dripping down their faces as they waited in line. They were given a sack containing a blanket, pot, plastic sleeping mat, soap, sanitary towels, a jerry can and plastic sheeting to cover tiny huts put together with twigs and leaves.
Anxious-eyed women stood patiently in line, some protected by umbrellas, fearful supplies would run out before their turn.
Standing apart from the crowd, a group of women muttered, angry that they have not yet received registration documents that allow refugees to receive aid.
"We've lined up every day since Saturday and finally got registered yesterday, but we still don't have the paper, so we won't be getting anything today," complained Christine Izere.
She said her five children and a lone toddler that she had befriended on the two-day journey on foot away from rebel-held territory have been surviving on the goodwill of a widow. For the past two weeks she has been given daily a small bowl of cassava leaf sauce, enough for a couple of mouthfuls for the group of seven, supplemented by plantain picked in the wild, Izere said.
She fled her home in Bisoko village, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of Goma, when shells fired by rebels in the hills above hit a cluster of homes just 100 yards (meters) from hers.
Amos, on the third day of a Congo trip, said relief efforts are hampered by a lack of funding. She appealed Tuesday for contributions. The U.N. says aid organizations needed $791 million before the current crisis erupted, and so far have received only $341 million.
She told a news conference she hopes her presence will help spur donors who may be fatigued by successive crises in Congo and inspire other donors to understand the urgency of the needs.
"I have spoken today to families who have had to leave their homes without any belongings and are now forced to sleep out in the rain, including children," Amos said. She noted that for many, this is not the first time.
The M23 rebellion "is a setback to efforts to break the cycle of violence that has engulfed eastern Congo for so long," she said.
In Kanyaruchina where the U.N. World Food Program was distributing energy biscuits, 15-year-old Mwamini Mizevero looked on a crowd enviously. She too hasn't had a proper meal since her family arrived, footsore, hungry and weary, two weeks ago.
With her four brothers, two sisters and her mother, she has been sleeping in the overhang of a wood cabin on the bare ground.
She was soaked through, and said she had been wet and cold since the thunderstorm erupted around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Mwamini said her family fled their home in Rugare town, about 40 kilometers (25 miles), north of Goma after rebels of the M23 movement took away two teenaged boys she knew from school.
"My mom was afraid for my brothers, so we just fled," she said of her siblings aged between 16 and 22.
The United Nations and the British Charity Oxfam this week condemned the M23's forced recruitment of boys, girls and men whom they use as porters to transport ammunition and as fighters.
A human rights activist in the Rutshuru district north of Goma that is under rebel control said he interviewed two teenagers who managed to escape.
"They said they were among eight forced to carry heavy boxes of ammunition from the Rwandan border. Then the rebels gave them uniforms and said they were going to teach them to shoot. The two escaped because they were sent to fetch water," said the activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from rebel fighters.
Rwanda is accused by a U.N. report of supporting the rebels, a charge Rwandan leaders deny.
Regional leaders meeting in Uganda over violence in eastern Congo have postponed a decision on the composition of a proposed neutral international force, saying the matter is subject to further discussions.
In their final report, read out by Uganda's foreign affairs minister on Wednesday, regional presidents said they recognize the "gravity" of the crisis in eastern Congo and proposed sanctions "against those who obstruct the peace efforts."
Another meeting to be held later this month will "work out the modalities" of such a force, according to documents released by summit officials, meaning that the rebellion in eastern Congo is not likely to be quelled immediately.
The U.N. mission in Congo expressed "deep concern" over growing evidence of forced recruitment by the M23 for both combat and non-combat purposes.
Over 100 cases have been documented of civilians being forcibly recruited by the M23 since April 2012, the U.N. mission said in a statement, adding that the total number may be much higher.
AP writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.