Since fighting began in April between government soldiers and a large group of defectors from the regular army, North Kivu Province in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has become a spaghetti junction of human migration patterns; tens of thousands of people have been displaced.
The movement of people might appear haphazard to the outside observer. Some walk east, others west.
For some, it is their third time to be displaced by conflict and many report negative experiences in camps. "You wait a whole day for one bowl of porridge, and there is violence," said Jeremiah*, who is currently sheltering in a remote hospital on a hill in Rutshuru District which overlooks an anti-aircraft gun position. International NGOs have no presence here now - only the local Red Cross, which supports the hospital.
Jeremiah's nine-year-old daughter was apprehended and raped while she and her grandmother were fleeing their village. He says the news killed him and that he is tired of war. But he says he will not cross the Ugandan border (less than 20km away) even if it does guarantee his family’s safety. "They make you go very far from your home," he said.
Maria Domitilla Nyabayazana* is the only resident in Kabanda, a village now on the front line in the conflict on the edge of Virunga National Park. Suffering from a leg injury, Maria was abandoned when other residents fled two weeks ago. "I have heard bombs since this morning - everybody has left," she said. Maria still carries out her daily chores, and eats the vegetables and fruits growing by her house.
“Close to 100,000 people have been uprooted from their homes by the recent wave of violence in… North Kivu, prompting renewed calls for better measures to protect civilians and more aid for distressed families,” said a 31 May press release from the UN humanitarian coordinator in the DRC.
“Since the beginning of April, thousands of families in North Kivu have had to flee for their lives, in the wake of violence borne out of desertions from the national army as well as ongoing military operations to bring under control illegal armed groups. It is estimated that some 74,000 people are now displaced in the Masisi, Lubero and Rutshuru territories, and several thousand more have found refuge in and around the provincial capital Goma,” it added.
The army defectors or “mutineers” had previously been integrated into the army as part of peace efforts.
On 4 June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Rwanda of supporting the mutinous troops, who are led by Gen Bosco Ntaganda, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes.
HRW said Rwandan military officials had allowed Ntaganda to enter Rwanda and supplied him with new recruits, weapons and ammunition. Rwanda has denied any involvement in the mutiny.
As villages become front lines, the most determined close their doors and hope for the best. "Yesterday, we listened to the armoury of the government," said August Basiha, 20, outside his home in Rangira, as UN surveillance helicopters circled overhead. "This village was never taken in the past. We are staying," he said, shortly after a convoy of trucks carrying special forces from Kinshasa and heavy artillery had passed.
Photo: Siegfried Modola
|Congolese army soldiers stand guard in Rutshuru, North Kivu Province|
Uganda the best option?
For others, however, Uganda is the best option: There is a relatively good road to the border, and trading opportunities in the busy border town. But some Congolese refugees say Uganda’s immigration officials are refusing them entry on the basis that "night commuting" is not allowed.
On one night in May, 7,000 people collected at the Bunagana border crossing, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). In response, Ugandan officials encouraged people to register. Those who did were transported to the increasingly over-stretched Nyakabande transit centre, 20km from the border and yet further from their crops and livestock.
At the border itself, UNHCR does not provide any assistance, nor register people, said Simplice Kpandji, a UNHCR public information officer in Goma: “The refugees are registered in the transit centre and assistance is also given to them there. For security reasons, we encourage them to move to the transit centre.”
In Bunagana, a Congolese town straddling the Ugandan border, the school is a temporary camp for many hundred internally displaced persons (IDPs). Jean-Claude* has a stall selling potatoes and miniature tubes of toothpaste. He says residents feel safe, and there are buildings for shelter and water. "But no one has any money and we're not getting any food - there is only so long that I can stay here,” he said.
Patchy aid delivery
A rapid response, led by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), is allowing aid workers to intervene and distribute essentials, but the government has made it clear that it does not want new official camps, and attempts by some NGOs to feed these people have been frustrated by bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the government's food distribution efforts appear to be ineffective. One international aid worker said the DRC minister of humanitarian affairs arrived in Rutshuru town (28km from Bunagana) and left a pile of food, but did not stop to ensure it went to those in need. The source, who asked not to be identified, said that even policemen took a share of the rations.
“We are facing difficulties as it's quite impossible sometimes to have access to the people in the war zone. We need a humanitarian corridor to assist and protect people,” said Kpandji. UN agencies and international NGOs have been forced to pull staff out of a number of locations in the last two months.
*names have been changed at interviewees’ request