The authorities in North Kivu Province in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hope soon to close the 60-odd camps housing some 210,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) on its territory: They say peace has returned.
Whether the timing is right is debatable. Dozens of local and foreign armed groups are active in North Kivu, and in Beni Territory in the far north of the province there have been a series of brutal killings that have left over 250 dead since October.
After the defeat of the Tutsi-Congolese M23 rebels by the army and UN peacekeepers in November 2013, the governor of North Kivu, Julien Paluku, said IDP camps should be closed, but so far only one camp has been closed - in somewhat chaotic circumstances.
On a visit to Kiwanja, a town in Rutshuru Territory, on 2 December, Paluku announced that the camp there, which had about 2,300 people, was closing following a decision by the provincial cabinet.
"We found several weapons… It was a place where crime was developed… We found 10 weapons in three months," said Paluku, adding that humanitarian workers had not been consulted on the closure.
Michel Magenda, mayor of Kiwanja, says there were "cases of banditry reported in this camp", with residents "caught after committing crimes" and that a man was even "lynched by people in surrounding communities when he was caught looting".
John, a resident of Kiwanja, said “bandits were hiding in the camp and had come to loot." The confusion caused tension between the local population and IDPs.
How the camp came into being
The camp, about 60km north of Goma, capital of North Kivu, was set up in November 2008 following fighting between the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP - a precursor of the M23) and the army, says the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). It had 10,000 IDPs who had fled fighting between CNDP and the army (FARDC).
"Towards the end of 2009, with an improved security situation in the wake of military operations… a wave of IDPs opted to return [to their homes]," said Celine Schmitt, spokesperson for UNHCR in DRC.
These operations targeted the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR - mainly of Rwandan Hutu rebels, including leaders who had participated in the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994). FDLR has been given until 2 January 2015 to disarm or face an offensive by the army and UN peacekeepers.
The military operations against FDLR in 2009 and 2010 caused its members to scatter, allowing some IDPs to return to their villages. About 1,000 people remained in the camp, mostly from the Binza group and villages near Virunga National Park occupied by FDLR.
The attacks of 2011 and 2012 against the M23 led to fresh displacements towards Kiwanja. "We then had 4,000 people [in the camp]. After the conflict with the M23, IDPs from the Jomba, Kinyandoni and other groups returned [to their homes]," said Schmitt.
Hours after the camp's closure announcement, the camp partially emptied. "Half of the camp was empty because it was inhabited by people from Kiwanja who had put up shacks in the camp to make the World Food Programme believe they were IDPs," said Paluku.
Vehicles were hired to take the displaced home. "Every IDP was busy. They brought even the reeds with which they had built their huts. They took everything, everything away," said Magenda, who said he had seen it.
UNHCR’s version of events differs. "Many people lost almost everything when the camp closed. Their possessions, including their plastic sheeting, blankets and cooking utensils were often stolen," said Schmitt.
"Some of the displaced… were in the fields or had gone to collect firewood when the site was closed. They relied on the hospitality of local people and had asked for help from aid workers, including tarpaulins against rain, blankets and kitchen utensils."
A civil society representative, on condition of anonymity, said he saw with his own eyes the camp being destroyed and burned. "They burned everything after people left… so that other gangsters could not come and hide there," he said.
Jean-Claude Bambanze, president of a civil society grouping in Rutshuru, which includes associations, NGOs and trade unions, said he welcomed the closure, "although there has been some indignation" on the part of the humanitarian community.
His regret: "We should have had accompanying measures, a departure kit. It would have been good if UNHCR could have tracked where they are for reintegration. Otherwise, people leave without assistance. There were children, and with the cold they could get respiratory diseases.
"Is someone out there to see if they have arrived? Are children going to study there? We asked for the closure of the camp but we demanded accompanying measures, sensitization, followed by returns once the ground was well prepared," he added.
Governor wants to end dependency culture
For Paluku, closing Kiwanja camp - with activities like closing the latrines - was a test. Despite criticism, he hopes to close other camps in the province soon.
"In my opinion, it is urgent that camps are closed, otherwise we risk promoting a culture of beggars happy to get bean seeds even though the situation has completely changed," he said, referring in particular to the end of M23.
In a sign that the authorities are willing to work with international aid groups on future camp closures, Paluku met the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in DRC, Moustapha Soumare. They agreed on “a consensual schedule” with humanitarian workers.
Paluku believes camp closures will also encourage foreign investors. "There will be no zero crime rate. There will always be insecurity… I don’t want people to have a picture of a province at war with the existence of the camps. Those who want to invest can," he insisted.
Meanwhile, UNHCR is stressing that returns must be voluntary: "We recognize that the improving security situation in parts of North Kivu Province has allowed the voluntary return of IDPs accommodated in IDP sites around Goma. However, we reiterate that the transfer or return of IDPs should be conducted on a voluntary basis, in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws on human rights" and "in safety and dignity, respecting the unity of the family and the specific needs of the people,” said Schmitt. Besides, she added, IDPs from Kiwanja - few of whom have returned home, while others may have returned to Kiwanja - "are asking… the authorities to restore peace in their villages. They do not want to remain in IDP sites and would prefer to go home if peace were restored."
UNHCR recommends promoting access to livelihoods where the displaced live in order to reduce dependence on humanitarian aid and help provide better future prospects, or local integration.