Life near the frontline in eastern DRC

The frontline of fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is only 6km away, yet most of the inhabitants of Kanyaruchinya, in North Kivu, have returned home, determined to resume their lives.

On 28 September, residents of Kanyaruchinya - many having returned earlier that week - opened a small market on the side of the main road, selling tomatoes, flour, oil and other essentials. Over 300 children, in white and navy blue school uniforms, headed back to school.

“The war is far,” residents repeated, pointing to hills on the horizon where the fighting continues.

Still, “work is slow,” agreed Mugizi, 10, and Mapendo, 30, who returned together on 20 September. They were selling corn and cassava flour at the market. “We’re hoping that it will improve as soon as more and more people come back,” they said.

Home, but with little help

Between 20 and 30 August, civilians from Kanyaruchinya and surrounding towns fled as M23 rebels clashed with Congolese government forces (FARDC) and the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade. From hilltop positions within 10km of Goma, the M23 shelled the city and surrounding towns.

Many civilians fled to Goma, sheltering in small temporary settlements in the city’s Majengo neighborhood and in Mugunga 3, a sprawling camp for the displaced on Goma’s southern edge.

Their return from Goma has been complicated by an absence of humanitarian aid that addresses immediate, basic needs of the population, even if civil society has returned to the region to address issues of security, education, and provide sensitization.

“They [humanitarian agencies] were here before the war. Now they tell us they will send evaluation teams, but we don’t know when. All they have told us is ‘later’,” said Ignace Madingo Nyasi, a community leader.

The people need food, water and tarps, he said. It is the rainy season, and many houses were damaged in the fighting.

“The war has destroyed shelter, even in my house,” said Gertrude Bonannée, 60, pointing to holes torn in her roof by bullets and shrapnel. “The elements come in. It is very cold.”

She pointed out four nearby houses that had been destroyed. Residents of such homes were staying with neighbors or living in temporary shelters made out of thatch and tarps from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) acquired during their refuge at the IDP camps in nearby Goma. Some are waiting for the war to recede further before returning to places like Kibati.

While the region waits for international humanitarian aid and evaluations from Goma, civil society members and organizations have returned in step with the population. A health clinic operates just 4km down the hill in the town of Nyiragongo, the local youth group has been established and elected a new leader Abdul Kasim Premier, and the regional chief, Mwami Lutiti is using his influence to encourage combating impunity and returning children to return to school.

Primary school principal Aimable Maombi says his school has reopened but is struggling. A 2m-wide hole was blown into the rear of a classroom. Only heavy tables remained when residents returned; Maombi said he suspects M23 rebels stole the school’s furniture and the gutters that fill the cistern.

“We have few chairs and no water. The cistern was affected by the bombardment and is empty - the children have no way to keep clean now. Its urgent, and we are very worried about their health.”

Of the school’s 435 students, 343 have returned. Maombi notes that those who have not returned may have been separated from their parents or been orphaned by the fighting.

Jacques Masumboko Butaka, the education chief in Nyiragongo territory, where Kanyaruchinya is located, added that schools in the region are receiving students from nearby Muvira. The schoolyard in Muvira contains unexploded ordinance.

Protecting civilians

Despite the challenges, the police and civil society are making a determined effort to help Kanyaruchinya residents return home and stay safe. With the help of the UN Development Programme’s Access Justice initiative, the prevention of sexual violence has become a key priority.

Access Justice works with the police forces and the FARDC to: sensitize against the perpetration of sexual violence by both civilians or the armed forces, combat impunity, and provide information about how to handle situations when confronted with both victims or perpetrators of such violence.

On 27 September, with support from UNDP, police officer Jean Matata trained local leaders from health, education, justice and youth organizations on what constitutes sexual violence and how to combat impunity.

On 28 September, this information was disseminated to residents through speeches by police Major David Bodeli, the Nyiragongo regional chief Mwami Jean Bosco Lutiti, FARDC Colonel Olivier Amuli, and the Nyiragongo comedy troupe, which performed skits about preventing sexual violence, forced marriage and child abuse.

Bodeli noted, “The police are here to protect you and to reassure you that life is returning to normal. Our presence shows that this area is safe.”

Recognizing that many residents are wary of reporting crime, the police have created a box where residents can leave information about alleged offenses and perpetrators. “There will be no impunity. [For criminals] it is to court, to court, and if guilty, to jail,” said Bodeli.