Fighting In Congo Forces Women To Trek For Days Or Watch Children Starve
GOMA - They look tired and drawn, weeks of suffering written across their faces. "We haven't had any assistance since we arrived: nothing to eat, no toilets, no medical treatment," says Mandevu Amani, a church minister who has fled the Kimumba camp.
Since July 7, thousands of families have come to settle in the Kanyaruchinya camp near the eastern Congolese city of Goma. They have walked up to 50 kilometers to flee the fighting between the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) and the March 23 Movement (M23) rebels.
This is the latest human toll from the fighting that broke out this spring in the eastern region of North Kivu over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement that integrated National Congress Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels into the national army. The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
Musekura Théo, president of displaced persons in the camp, says 13,835 families have been registered by the North Kivu Civil Protection. Five people have already died, including two children suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, and another who starved to death. "There are so many problems that we just don't know how to manage," Théo said.
The civil protection has constructed a few basic shelters but victims are still waiting for sufficient humanitarian assistance: "We are asking the government to do everything they can to stop the war, because we can't stay here any longer," says Théo. "We need to return to our villages to deal with our crops, our livelihood."
Now that they have fled, their only chance of surviving is to stock up on supplies back home. "We left our homes in Kibumba in the Nyiragongo territory after the M23 attacks against the FARDC. We've been here for three weeks now without receiving assistance," says refugee Paul Nzabanita. "So we have to send our wives into the villages to find supplies and look after the fields. We're dying of hunger here and the M23 will only let us pass if we give them some of our harvest."
Women are being sent because they arouse less suspicion from the M23 rebels, with men facing the risk of being accused of working for the FARDC or of being spies. "It's no longer possible for us to go home," explains Laurent Bandoraho, from the Rugari group. "It's too difficult for us to go back in the fields, now that they're controlled by the rebels. They're forcibly recruiting men and children."
The women have to cross dozens of kilometers - sometimes more than three days of walking - to get supplies and come back. "I'm alone here with my two children," explains Ingabire Murekumbanze. "Fearing that they may die, I decided to return home to bring back something to eat."
The return trip was made even more difficult because of harrassment and extortion from both the M23 and the FARDC forces. "They insulted me," Murekumbanze said. "I had to give some of my supplies so they would let me pass."
Inevitably, the few supplies that the women bring back do not last long, and they soon have to leave in search of food outside the camp. "Our children are dying," pleads Désiré Ahorinyuze, who is also from Kibumba. "The authorities have to do something so that we can go back home."
The urgency to return is even greater for a population used to living off the land: they know that harvest time is just around the corner.