When clashes broke out on 22 November between the M23 rebels and government-allied Mai Mai militias in the town of Sake, near the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) border with Rwanda, 6,000 people fled down a dead-end road to Nzulo Village on the edge of Lake Kivu. By the following day, they were once again living in a war; M23 soldiers had arrived and were forcing the young men to help them build their camp on a nearby hilltop.
The humanitarian crisis is gathering pace as thousands flee either fighting, the prospect of fighting, or the prospect of angry troops retreating every day.
In North Kivu's provincial capital, Goma, Oxfam's humanitarian coordinator Tariq Riebl describes conditions as "grim". According to an Oxfam assessment, people are living with very little shelter, food or water: "There are reports that the prices of staple foods have risen in recent days, and although food may be available in the markets many people are unable to afford it."
After the rebels took control of Goma on 20 November, clean water was the primary concern - many people were drinking from the lake, as power to the city's water pump was cut during the fight. Suspected cholera cases are being treated and NGOs including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Solidarités International are providing water purification stations.
Following negotiations with regional leaders under the auspices of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, M23 said it would pull out of Goma, Sake and Masisi a territory in North Kivu.
Growing needs, limited resources
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanitarian organizations are trying to assist some 140,000 people in 12 sites for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Goma.
The European Union has funded equipment to restore Goma's power lines, but organizations are unable to fly in aid and staff because the airport is closed. Banks also remain closed. NGOs and agencies are restricted by insecurity, and many humanitarian programmes are on hold.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which was temporarily forced to suspend operations when fighting broke out in Goma, has since resumed food distributions, providing some 81,000 people with rations in recent days. But WFP says it faces a funding shortfall of US$23 million for the next six months of its emergency operations in the DRC.
|Civilian population in Masisi at risk|
|No power, little safe water in Goma|
|Paths to peace in the Kivus|
The latest fighting is reportedly taking place on the Rwandan border, between Rwandan troops and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan Hutu rebel group. There are new large-scale displacements reported every day, yet the crisis remains chronically underfunded, with just 56 percent of the UN's $791 million 2012 humanitarian appeal for DRC funded so far.
Merlin, a UK-headquartered international NGO, established its first rapid response health clinic in Nzulo a little over 24 hours after they heard about the impromptu camp. "There are so many needs right now," Arthur Sarazin, Merlin's country director, told IRIN. The primary conditions they are treating include diarrhoea and fever, and they have had two suspected cholera cases.
Alise Riziki, 23, sat with her two children under a rainbow-coloured umbrella, the only shelter she had. "When the gunfire came, I left [Sake] because I didn't want to die. We were afraid because they're saying they're going to kill us,” she said.
But she found little respite at Nzulo. "Columns of M23 soldiers walked into the village last night. They said last night, 'If you don't go back, you'll be killed'. The soldiers want us to go back to Sake."
One M23 commander named Jean Pierre confirmed that he believed there were Mai Mai militia elements among the IDPs. "It's not easy to know if they're here - but they are," he said.
Two days after M23 arrived, the government army, FARDC, set up on another nearby hill. People once again fled, with gunfire being heard at night in the hills to the west, around Sake. Their only choice was to go to rebel held-Goma, which is already bursting at the seams with IDPs.
Photo: Jessica Hatcher/IRIN
|Government troops in North Kivu|
Forcible recruitment, abuses
"They are intimidating. They have guns. You can't speak back to that," said Patrick Bahati, 15. He was one of 60,000 already displaced people living at the Kanyaruchinya camp, to the north of Goma, once again on the move after finding themselves on the front lines of the war.
Patrick says his father was forcibly recruited by M23 on the morning of 19 November, a day before the rebel army walked into Goma. "They came in big numbers. They entered the house, found my dad, and took him by force," he told IRIN.
His mother wasn't home when the rebels arrived. Nearly a week later, he still does not know what happened to her. His father has not returned.
The NGO, World Vision says its local partners “have seen armed people passing guns and ammunition to civilians this morning, including children aged16-18”.
Originally from the North Kivu territory of Rutshuru, where much of the fighting over the last six months has played out, this is the second time Patrick and his 81-year-old grandmother have fled.
They were among the 4,700 people who flooded into the Mugunga III camp, west of Goma, over the weekend. The head of Mugunga III estimates that there are now 9,000 people living there.
"I just want to go back to school,” Patrick said. "The schools have closed, but even when they open, I won't be able to go to school because I have to find food.” He says he fears walking the streets of Goma, lest he be forcefully recruited to the rebels' ranks.
Civilians in Goma report that M23 looted the central bank on 27 November. FARDC soldiers have also been accused of looting homes and businesses and raping women as they retreat from areas now held by M23.
"The movements of people have not stabilized," said a UN source in Goma who preferred anonymity. "The problem is that everything can change very rapidly... Things are happening in all places - not just Goma but also Masisi, which is difficult to access, and [it is difficult] also to have an idea of how many people are fleeing."