Joseph Semaska was 15 when the M23 rebels marched on his home in Kibumba. It was 2012 and, with his parents, he headed on foot to Goma. For more than a year, the teenager lived in a refugee camp, eating rations distributed by aid agencies, missing out on school and watching helplessly as diseases spread through the settlement.
“My mother died there,” he says.
It was a time in his life he thought was behind him. Semaska returned to Kibumba and got married. But in May, the spectre of conflict returned to the region. The M23 rebel militia, named after the 23 March 2009 peace accords and defeated by the Congolese army in 2013, has made a comeback. Old patterns of violence and displacement are once again affecting hundreds of thousands of people in the Rutshuru territory, a district of the North Kivu province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
By the end of May, 72,000 people had been displaced from their homes, according to the UN.
When the M23 attacked Kibumba a few weeks ago, Semaska, now 25 and a father of two, did not hesitate. He grabbed the bare essentials for the family; told his wife, Chiza, to do the same, and they fled, carrying Chanceline, three, and Amos, two, in their arms.
Finding refuge with relatives in a cramped room built with planks and a tarpaulin printed with an aid agency’s logo, the young man is haunted by old nightmares, merging the memories of his dying mother with the new fears he bears for his children.
“I feel choked. My children are very young, and we’re crammed into a tiny place. There is no baby food,” he says. “A few women in the camp have miscarried. We’re not getting the support we need right now.”
Semaska and his family are staying in Kanyarushinya camp on the outskirts of Goma, which was built for families displaced by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano just a year ago.
Many have not yet been able to rebuild homes destroyed by the lava flow and have been stuck in the camp, getting the bare necessities from a few agencies. Now they have to share the little they have with the new wave of people pouring in, this time from a manmade catastrophe.
“We’re all stretched very, very thin here,” says Aziz Diop, senior emergency coordinator at the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
“DRC already has the largest displacement numbers in Africa, with 4.5 million Congolese displaced within their own country and 864,000 abroad as refugees. This new crisis is opening a new front for us and other agencies, with no additional resources.”
For Diop’s Congolese colleagues, the psychological impact of seeing everything they worked for undone once again is a hard blow to their morale. “There is a deep feeling of frustration,” says Alexis Baruti, an associate protection officer. “We invested so much to help displaced people go home after the last conflict, and 10 years later we are back to square one. At a personal level, this has a real cost.”
Baruti, like many humanitarian workers, is worried that, with the war in Ukraine and donor fatigue, people’s needs in eastern DRC will be minimised, and donors will not provide the necessary resources to deal with the emergency. The impact of the global cost of living crisis is compounding the situation, as prices of daily necessities in the country have sharply increased.
Many humanitarian operations have also been disrupted by the fighting itself. Heavy shelling and constant, intense combat between the Congolese army and the rebels have left convoys unable to access certain areas in Rutshuru.
Last month, the head of the peacekeeping mission in DRC, Bintou Keita, told the UN security council that the rebels’ fighting capacity appears to be that of a “conventional army” and could soon overpower the blue helmets’ own capacity to protect the population.
East African leaders have discussed the deployment of a regional force to help restore peace in the region.
The DRC government and many experts in the region, including UN and diplomatic sources, believe the M23 is receiving military support from the government of Rwanda, which borders the region. Rwanda denies the allegation.
The International Committee of the Red Cross says about 1,000 children have been separated from their families since the fighting began. But, because of the insecurity in Rutshuru, the organisation has had to close its “phone booths” where people could make free calls to local loved ones.
“I’m blessed to be with my family at least,” says Semaska. “I can’t imagine what these families are going through [who ot able to stay with relatives]. But this shouldn’t be happening again to us. Our future is again completely uncertain.”
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July 18, 2022 at 11:44AM Mélanie Gouby in Goma