Tens of thousands of refugees and displaced people are starting to return to their homes in the two territories of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) previously occupied by the M23 rebels.
But for many more Congolese uprooted by conflict a homecoming is still a distant prospect.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on 6 November a “progressive return or a wish to return” among internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Nyiragongo and Rutshuru territories, where the M23’s last holdouts were captured by the DRC army last week.
The report suggested that around 40,000 IDPs, and 10,000 DRC refugees in Uganda, might soon return to their homes in the two territories.
But the other four territories in North Kivu are still prey to armed groups, and are still seeing population displacements, OCHA said.
Official figures in August suggested there were some 135,000 IDPs from Rutshuru and Nyiragongo, out of just over one million in the whole province, and some two and a half million in the country.
Privately, some NGOs contest those figures, which they say are exaggerated. The real figure is likely to rise, however, at least temporarily, as the Congolese army and the UN mission in Congo (MONUSCO) attempt to neutralize other “negative forces”.
Analyst Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group predicts that the neutralization of the more than 20 remaining armed groups in North Kivu will be “a long and complex task”.
The day before the M23’s last bastion fell to the Congolese army, refugees a few kilometres away in Uganda spoke of the difficulties that may still confront them.
Innocent Nyonzima, a young man from Rutshuru, told IRIN: “When we go back, there will still be a problem.
“Many of us have been refugees since 2007, and in Rwanda there is a Congolese population that left nearly 20 years ago.
“It will be difficult for families to regain their rights and their land or even to recognize their homes,” he said. “They may find they have lost everything.”
Zawadi Mwamini, a 28-year-old woman from Masisi Territory, now living in a camp outside Goma, has already been through this experience.
“We fled the war in 2007,” she told IRIN. “In 2009 we went back to our village and found our fields had been occupied by another family. They said `this is not your home’ and chased us away.”
Zawadi said the village was not in a war zone but she and her husband had had to return to the camp.
“We didn’t have any money or work so we came here for assistance.”
Family squabbles over land
Gabriel Hanyurwa, a displaced farmer and teacher living in the same camp, told IRIN he could go back to his village in Rutshuru but he would not sleep easily.
“I am afraid to go back to my home because I don’t get on with my family,” he said. “If I go back there my elder brother could have me killed. Families are eating each other in the villages - quarrelling over their fields and inheritances.”
He said it was common for whole villages to be divided against each other by these kinds of disputes, even where villagers are all from the same ethnic group.
“Among 100 families there are perhaps 50 who are hated, and 50 who aren’t… Yes I could go back to the village, I could cultivate my field but I would always be worried that they would come for me in the night.”
Similar fears are shared by many in eastern DRC, says Christophe Beau, protection adviser for the UN system in Goma.
“Even when a zone has been made secure,” he told IRIN, “people always fear to return to it because they could still be threatened by people who were in the armed groups.”
It is not clear what proportion of refugees and IDPs believe they could be targeted if they go home, but it seems likely these fears will be strongest in areas where armed groups have created or exacerbated inter or intra-community tensions over land, power and resources.
The researcher Severine Autesserre, in her 2010 study The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding, writes that land disputes have often been a cause of tension for displaced people trying to return to their villages in eastern DRC.
“Returnees often find their land occupied by new groups, usually of a different ethnic origin. This practice of usurpation occurred in similar ways throughout eastern Congo.”
Detailed reports compiled by the RRMP (Rapid Response to Movements of Population), a joint UN/NGO initiative in eastern DRC, give an idea of where these kinds of tensions are most serious.
Out of 40 localities assessed by the RRMP recently, nine were found to feature land and community conflicts that in some cases contributed to preventing IDPs returning home.
This may understate the scale of the problem for IDPs and returnees in general. The RRMP focuses on population movements to new sites, and probably under-reports movements to established camps, which are mainly sited near areas with the worst community and land conflicts.
Overcoming the obstacles
UNHCR’s Beau argues that to overcome IDP fears of returning home, “first of all it’s important to support armed group members’ return to civilian life and to encourage their social integration.
“We need more programmes to achieve this in North Kivu. The government should put these kinds of programmes in place as soon as possible.”
This should be accompanied by dialogue and “transformative activities”, he added.
Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator in North Kivu, Tariq Riebl, agreed. He said “the Congolese government needs to rapidly adopt a strong and comprehensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme,” which regional governments and international partners should support.
Oxfam is also calling for a political process, alongside any military action, “that addresses deep-seated issues including land, livelihoods, control of resources and representation of all communities” and includes local-level dialogue.
The head of civil society for the mineral rich Walikale Territory, Prince Kihangi Kyamwami, echoed this plea at a mining conference in Kigali on 14 November.
“The traditional chiefs in the territory have appealed to the five armed groups in our territory to lay down their arms, and most of them have agreed,” he told the conference. “We ask the authorities to promote dialogue rather than using force and to track down only those armed groups that have not agreed to dialogue.”
The conference also heard that a meeting of Mai-Mai armed groups was held recently at Itebero in Walikale, where it was agreed to “pacify” the mines and increase production, and that another meeting with Mai-Mai leaders is planned in Shabunda, a gold mining territory of South Kivu.
Shabunda and Walikale are not in fact areas where ownership of farmland is strongly contested (except where it contains minerals). Two community dialogues involving armed groups were held in Masisi early this year, but the territory’s land conflicts were not a major item on the agenda of these meetings, which mainly concerned combatants’ conditions for integrating with the army.
The government has begun revising its land law but shows little sign of favouring agrarian reform, such as land distribution, a process that might trigger violence. In the absence of strong government initiatives, UN Habitat and several NGOs have tried to resolve local land disputes in the Kivus, but so far the acreages involved have been very small.
A model to follow?
In contrast to the DRC, neighbouring Rwanda has managed to alleviate land shortages and increase production through large-scale agricultural programmes. At a conference last month, Rwanda’s agriculture minister, Agnes Kalibata, attributed much of the increased production to hill terracing, which reduces erosion.
In the past decade Rwandan smallholder farmers have been paid under government programmes to terrace their own land, and in the past six years the government has also awarded more than 10 million land titles.
In the DRC very few farmers have land titles and few hillsides in the Kivus are terraced.