Weathering the storm – Congo refugees live day by day

By James Stairs

Goma_(dpa) _ Rosa Nyanzira sits on a pile of volcanic rock in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, wearing two dresses and a ragged fur coat despite the scorching summer heat.

“These clothes are all that I have,” she says. “I don’t want to lose them.”

Nyanzira, 48, is one of an estimated 350,000 refugees living in Goma, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province.

Children carry water in a Congolese IDP camp
Children carry water in a Congolese IDP camp

Many of these refugees fled late last year as fighting flared up between rebel Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and government forces.

Over 250,000 civilians ran, joining hundreds of thousands already displaced by localized clashes that have continued since the end of the 1998-2003 war.

In early November, Nyanzira, a mother of eight from the town of Kisharo, about 90 kilometres north of Goma, travelled to visit her daughter in the nearby village of Kiwanja.

“The war met me there,” she says. “We were at my daughter’s home and we heard shouting and gunfire.

“We saw government soldiers running past,” she adds. “They told us we should flee.”

Nyanzira and her daughter ran to a nearby forest.

“We took nothing,” she says. “There was no time.”

At least 150 people died in the attack on Kiwanja amid reports of summary executions.

Tales of rape, murder and looting – by the army as well as the CNDP – are commonplace.

Nkunda, who launched his campaign in October, citing the need to protect Congolese Tutsis from attacks by Hutu militias formed after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, denies the charges.

Nyanzira and her daughter joined a line of refugees and travelled to Goma under the cover of darkness. The group sought shelter at the Notre Dame church in Goma’s impoverished Katoy quarter.

Nyanzira has lived in the empty lot between the church and a neighbouring school for the last three months.

Each night, the caretaker unlocks the school door and hundreds of people file in, hoping to find a bit of floor to sleep on.

In the morning, the refugees vacate the building and travel into the city’s wealthier parts, hoping to find odd jobs.

Those too young, too old or too weak to work simply squat on piles of rock left over from a volcanic eruption that decimated parts of the city in 2002.

Humanitarian workers occasionally hand out clothing and food, while the church donates 20 kilogrammes of beans and maize flour, a local staple, every two weeks.

Nyanzira dreams about reuniting with her family, but she has no idea where they are. Although information is passed on by new arrivals, Nyanzira has heard nothing.

A child carries a bed roll in the KIbati II refugee camp outside Goma in the Eastern DRC
A child carries a bed roll in the KIbati II refugee camp outside Goma in the Eastern DRC

She hopes her family headed towards the refugee camps in neighbouring Uganda. But she will wait until it is safe to travel before searching for her lost kin.

Officials estimate that anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent of Congolese refugees are living in public spaces or with host families.

The rest are in camps. But security has become a major issue for these people.

Ten kilometres away from the church, the Kibati II refugee camp sits in the shadow of Goma’s volcano, Mount Nyamuragira. It is also on the front lines of the war.

Night raids by heavily armed and unpaid soldiers, members of the Congolese army (FARDC), make life precarious for the nearly 70,000 refugees at Goma’s largest camp.

Two people have been murdered and several women have been raped in the camp since November.

The irony, locals say, is that the FARDC is tasked with protecting the refugees.

David Nthengwe, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), says that the agency is trying to relocate the refugees to another camp further from the front lines.

But war-weary residents are reluctant to move with the future uncertain.

Rwanda, with the agreement of the Congolese government, has sent a force of almost 4,000 soldiers into the east of DR Congo to tackle the Hutu militia. But Rwanda has also arrested Nkunda, who was facing opposition from within the CNDP.

Whether this will mean more or less fighting, nobody is sure, and the refugees are unwilling to take the chance of returning home.

School teacher Innocent Gasigwa, 32, has lived at the camp since October. The father of three also fled Kiwanja after the rebel attack.

He has no plans to leave, arguing that its proximity to Goma allows him to go to the city and seek work.

“If the war comes here or more attacks happen, I can always run to Goma,” he says.

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