The army’s insistence that it is safe to go home does little to convince the thousands of people who have made a temporary residence of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) town of Dungu, in Orientale Province.
About a quarter of the town’s 73,000 inhabitants are internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled there to escape attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgency, which has been weakened over the years but continues to sow terror in both DRC and neighbouring Central African Republic.
The UN estimates that, since January, some 17 people have been killed and 54 abducted in around 50 attacks attributed to the LRA. This is despite claims by the army that it has driven all remaining LRA fighters out of eastern DRC.
"The LRA is no longer active; we’ve chased away the few [fighters] that remain,” said Jean-Claude Kifwa, the military spokesperson in Orientale Province.
Sister Angélique Namaïka, through her Centre for Reintegration and Development (CRAD), spends her time empowering and teaching women abused and displaced by the LRA.
A former LRA-exile herself, she maneuvers Dungu’s chaotic roads by bicycle to reach the women. Lingala literacy courses and lessons in baking, cooking and sewing are some of the classes she offers to the women.
Resigned to a prolonged stay, many of the displaced are only too willing to take up the courses to improve their livelihood prospects.
Anne*, 19, who fled 90km from the village of Duru, is one of the beneficiaries. "I learned to sew. I can make skirts, shirts, dresses... Now I’m trained. I sell clothes, and it helps me to pay for care, food, soap and everything else. Before, it was a bit difficult to make money," she told IRIN.
She added, "This training helped me a lot. Even if I don't have much material to make clothes, people bring me clothes to mend." She nervously fiddled with the dirty pajamas worn by the child she had with an LRA fighter.
"In my village, I lived on the sale of cloth, donuts and packaging films. I've just started sewing, and I'm sure it will help me," says Virginia, 40, a mother of eight whose relatives were killed by the LRA.
Nicole, 40, who has also lost family members, took three classes: literacy, sewing and cooking. She proudly displays the schoolbag she has crafted with her name sewn on. "As I started baking, it helped me pay for uniforms for the children and tuition. As for sewing, it will stay with me; if I return to the village, it will help me," she said.
A daily struggle
According to a report released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) on 17 September, more than half of the over 320,000 people currently displaced by the LRA in Orientale Province have been living in displacement situations for up to five years. Conditions for them are bleak. Remote and dangerous areas have little support from the numerous relief agencies operating within DRC.
“Dungu is isolated in terms of access due to the lack of basic infrastructure. Roads are poor, and isolation often means basic services and social protection are sparse. Seventy percent of the Congolese population lives below the poverty threshold,” Gloria Nguya, a researcher on Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), told IRIN. “What we tend to see is people relying on informal support networks such as friends, family, the church and nuns such as Sister Angelique.”
Nineteen-year-old Sarah, a mother of two "children of the LRA", sells donuts. "Before learning to make pastries, I struggled terribly to buy food. [I struggled] even to buy pondu [a dish made from cassava leaves]. Back there, the children ate very little."
Even so, they still find it hard to cope - Sarah’s 18-month-old son David has red hair, a sign of malnutrition.
Elodie, who learned to bake, told IRIN, "It is not every day that you eat."
Sister Angélique attributed this to low production and poor personal finance management.
"Sometimes when they start to get money, women want to buy products to lighten their skin, and during this time the children are hungry," lamented Sister Angélique, who on 17 September received the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which will allocate US$100,000 to her work. "I said that money is primarily for children's health, their education, and food. They should not spend too much of it on themselves. And if mismanagement continues, I will remove them from the programme."
Hostility from locals
Many of the displaced have to endure the mistrust or hostility of the local population, who refer to them as the “women of the LRA".
Anais, 14, who was abducted for six days in 2011, said, "They killed my father, I was captured, I have been raped... One night, I was able to escape, and the army took me to Dungu. Some of them still call me 'woman of the LRA'."
Sarah, who was released by the LRA in March 2013 after the death of her “husband", had to rename her two children.
"I changed Kony to Moses and Samangola to David,” she said, citing pressure from Dungu villagers.
“They said it was very bad to be called that and for their protection.”
Still, they would rather be in Dungu than back in their villages. “The deeply entrenched fear that this long history of violence has inspired means that today, the mere rumour of perceived LRA activity is enough to cause whole villages to flee in fear for their lives,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, in a press statement for the report.
ODI’s Nyuga noted to IRIN that, in the absence of an assurance of security, returning the IDPs to their original homes would be complex. “IDPs will only be able to secure their livelihoods if they are returning to a place which is stable and there are opportunities for income generation,” noted ODI’s Nyuga, saying that a repeated “threat of theft and violence from the LRA” will make it difficult for them to ever rebuild.
*names have been changed