LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Massive aid is needed to help more than 1 million people caught up in a vicious conflict in central Congo, the head of Oxfam said on Tuesday, describing it as a "Cinderella crisis" that had been overlooked by the rest of the world.

Mark Goldring, who has just returned from the region, said the one-year-old conflict in Kasai was the world's most neglected emergency given the scale of suffering.

"I saw houses that had been razed, I saw people who had been attacked, children who had been shot," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"(We saw) absolutely indiscriminate violence that either targeted children or was indifferent to the impact on children," he said, adding he had also seen children with machete wounds.

Thousands of people have been killed and 1.4 million uprooted in Kasai since the start of an insurrection in August 2016 by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which wants the withdrawal of military forces from the area.

The United Nations says the militia has used hundreds of children in combat or as human shields and thousands have been separated from their families.

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Nearly a million people have been forced to flee their homes this year alone - making it the largest displacement crisis of 2017, according to Oxfam.

Fields have been abandoned with people too terrified to leave their homes to farm them, Goldring said.

Hundreds of schools and clinics have also been ransacked or destroyed. Goldring said he had seen one clinic where even the ward doors had been stolen, presumably for use as firewood.

The Oxfam chief met families who had been driven out of their village three times in six months and lost everything they had each time.

"LARGELY INVISIBLE"

One woman called Bernadette told Goldring how her children had drowned as they tried to escape after she was stabbed.

"We fled after all the houses were burned, we lost everything," Oxfam quoted her as saying.

"...it is impossible to come back home. They will recognize our language and kill us."

Another survivor, Emmanuel, stood in his burnt out home as he told how men armed with machetes had killed his family.

"I lost everything: my wife, my boy, my daughter," he told Oxfam staff. "I have nothing to eat, I don't know where I can go."

Goldring said the crisis was unusual in that there were no large displacement camps; people were hiding in the bush for weeks at a time as fighting raged, others were sheltering in churches or abandoned warehouses.

Many were being fed by local communities who themselves had very little.

"It's largely invisible to the wider world," Goldring said as he called for a rapid scale-up of humanitarian assistance.

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A $64.5 million emergency appeal launched in April is only 40 percent funded.

Goldring said there was an urgent need for tools, seeds, water, sanitation and food aid. Although there is food in the region, he said people either could not afford it or could not access it because of the fighting.

The Oxfam chief said the conflict was being aggravated by the wider political and economic turmoil in Congo where violence has escalated since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down when his mandate ended in December.

Goldring said it was vital the international community pressure the government to stick to the constitutional reforms it had signed up to last year.

Analysts fear the growing violence could spark a repeat of the conflicts between 1996 and 2003, mostly in the east of Congo, in which millions died, mainly from hunger and disease.

(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)