In the DR Congo’s North Kivu Thousands Fleeing Violence are Going Hungry

Children outside their makeshift shelters in the displacement site at Kiwanja Parish. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Rutshuru Territory, North Kivu — In 2017 alone, more than 442,000 people were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (DRC) eastern North Kivu due to clashes between militia, counter efforts to neutralize militia and atrocities against civilians.

Throughout 2017 humanitarian requirements in North Kivu grew at a rate much higher than anticipated. The province is home to more than one quarter of all of those displaced in the DRC. Moreover the security climate is considered one of the most hostile in the country, a factor that complicates access for aid agencies.

The roots of the conflicts that have plagued this region for the past two decades lie in land ownership, control of mineral resources and trading routes and the issue of what it means to be Congolese, as well as the legacy of invasions by neighbouring countries. With each year that goes by the armed groups active in the region have become more numerous and ever-more fragmented; the alliances between them are in a constant state of flux. Many of the groups spend more time preying on vulnerable civilians than fighting other armed men.

While infrastructure links the region to the DRC’s eastern neighbours of Rwanda and Uganda, getting to Kinshasa involves a two-and-a-half-hour flight, attempting the 1,600 kilometres trip overland from the capital would take weeks.

A toddler at the entry to the Kiwanja Parish displacement site. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

More than 130,000 other displaced Congolese have found shelter in formal camps and are receiving help. IOM, the UN Migration Agency, co-leads the Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) along with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and their Government counterpart the National Commission for Refugees (CNR). It currently coordinates and manages 28 displacement sites in North Kivu, but new spontaneous sites keep appearing as fresh waves of people flee and the displaced at the new spontaneous sites are not currently receiving any help. This is due in part to lack of funding.

IOM and other aid organizations have had to scale up their operations in new areas such as the Kasais and Tanganyika, while maintaining their assistance in areas of traditional need such as North Kivu.

Displaced people who have been sheltering at some of the sites here for the past several months did receive, but for a limited period of time, food, clean water, health care and other relief.

The new arrivals’ most pressing complaint is that they have no food to give their children. When these subsistence farmers had access to their land back home they were able to provide for their families; now reduced to looking for work as day labourers on other people’s land far from where they are sheltering, and with many households having lost one parent — most assumed dead — in the chaos of flight, many of them are destitute.

Rukoro Camp

Rukoro Camp consists of several dozen banana-leaf huts thrown together in a field at the side of the road and is now home to just over 330 displaced Congolese and counting. The sun beats down and the displaced people here have access neither to clean water nor to health care. The site, close to a large pond, is infested with malarial mosquitos and the closest work — casual labour in the fields — is a day’s walk away.

Displaced people along the side of the road in Rukoro. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

The only thing that Rukoro has going for it is its relative security, compared to areas further north, where the new arrivals fled from — abandoning homes and crops.

“We used to regularly find that people had been killed or illegally detained but the security forces never did anything to stop it,” explained Jophet Nkomati, sitting on a low bench alongside the camp’s chief.
“So we fled. Those who had money continued further along the road to Bunagana (on the DRC/Uganda border) and they rent houses there. The rest of us are here where we are at least safe,” he explained, saying that the local chief allowed them to put up huts in the field after they had initially gathered at the church.

Kwisanga Bakunzi, sporting a blue rain jacket and trainers that are falling to pieces, is the father of eight children and the chief of the camp.

“Since we arrived here we have not received any help whatsoever, not even anything to eat. We are going to die of hunger here, or of sickness,” he said.
“We’re starting to see cases of malnutrition,” he said pointing to children whose hair is turning orange, which is a symptom. Almost all of the small children in the camp have hard, swollen bellies. Many of them also look sickly. “It’s malaria,” explained the chief.

Getting children back into school is not even something the people of Rukoro have the energy to talk about at the moment. Feeding their children once a day is a big enough challenge.

Accessing basic health care involves travelling to Rutshuru, a nearby town approximately eight kilometres away.

“Getting treatment ends up costing 15 to 20 dollars so mostly people wait until they are really sick,” said the chief.

One woman recounted how she had to take her son to hospital when his malaria took a turn for the worse. She persuaded the nurses to treat him, saying a family member was coming with money and then ran away once he had received treatment.

A displaced family at Rukoro in front of their hut. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

The only work to be found in the area is in Kiseguro, a day’s walk away. All the heads of the households at Rukoro travel there regularly. The work brings in just under a dollar a day for an adult, half that sum for an adolescent. Widespread insecurity in the region, where both armed men prey on civilians, stopping them at gunpoint to collect food and money, means that there is no guarantee of getting back to camp with the earnings.

“We have to do all that to make ends meet even though we have land back home,” exclaimed Kwisanga Bakunzi, unable to hide his frustration.

Another urgent need in Rukoro is clean water. The camp’s inhabitants draw all their water, drinking water included, from a large pond nearby.

“Sometimes when we go to get water we discover that someone has defecated in it. We try to disperse the fecal matter with a stick and we wait for a bit. But then we draw the water anyway. We don’t have any choice,” explained one of the camp’s residents.

The camp has one latrine, closed off with a screen made of leaves, shared by more than 40 families.

Kiwanja Parish Site

At Kiwanja Parish Site, not far from Rukoro, the displaced have access to clean water and to proper latrine blocks, thanks to a recent intervention by Médecins sans Frontières. A group of children splashes around as they wash under a jet of water. The inhabitants who have spent several months in the camp received some humanitarian assistance like food and health care. Local families who sheltered displaced people were also given some help, explained Innocent Habumuremye, the head of the camp.

Since those projects ended, the displaced people in Kiwanja, who, like those in Rukoro, fled ethnically targeted violence, have been struggling to feed their families. Their shelters — pieces of tarpaulin, plastic or rice sacking stretched over a frame of wood or bamboo are more weather-proof than those in Rukoro, but are too small for the average family. Many of the older children have to sleep outside.

Dorica Kabuo, a 23-year-old displaced woman, hugs her twin babies to her at Kiwanja Parish displacement site. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

Even those, who have been here for months and somehow find work, have trouble getting enough to eat, in particular the numerous women alone with small children. As is the case in Rukoro, other than day labouring the only way to earn a living is by collecting and selling firewood.

One advantage at Kiwanja is access to education for children. Teachers among the displaced persuaded a local protestant school where normal classes are taught only in the morning to make their premises available to the children from the camp in the afternoon.

But Kiwanja is one of the major trading centres in the area and the site draws freshly displaced people who arrive here every day fleeing torture and killings.

These new arrivals, exhausted after days of walking and in many cases severely affected by the violence that they have suffered, are still stranded at the entry to the camp. Several dozens of them are crammed like sardines into a structure with a roof and a raised-up concrete floor, open on all sides. Some sleep on canvas sacks; other just lie on the concrete. Many say they are too hungry to sleep as for the time being the only way they can get anything to eat is by begging.

“If someone could just give us a bit of maize to eat,” appealed Vianney Nzamuye, still trembling after his ordeal.

His wife, Justine Sebikere, huddled under her clothing, looks still more severely traumatized. Prompted by her husband, she extends two skinny arms to show the marks left by the ropes on her skin. In their normal life, this middle-aged couple grew beans and squash in a field on the outskirts of their village. Right now neither of them would have the physical or mental force to set off in search of work.

Vianney Nzamuye and Justine Sebikere: new arrivals at Kiwanja, who narrowly escaped being buried alive. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

They were there tending the crops along with their neighbours when a group of armed men appeared.

“They had a rifle, a spear and two machetes. We were in the field. They tied us up,” Vianney recounted, demonstrating how his arms had been tied behind his back. Not far from there was a big hole used for fermenting bananas. “They pushed us into it. All four of us were in the same hole,” he explained, gesticulating at his neighbours sitting on the steps.

“Then they started to bury us. We didn’t know what to do,” he said, shaking softly with fatigue and fear.
“I said I would give then 100,000 francs (about $60) if they got us out of there. I didn’t have the money but I didn’t know what to do. In the end, they pulled us out of the hole and they gave us a boy to accompany us back to the house and get the money. We told him to come back the next day at 10 am — that he should give us the time to get the money together. He left us and we took the kids — we have twins of eight — and went to hide for the night. Early the next morning we all fled. That was Friday, a week ago. Here we sleep on the concrete and we have to beg for food.”

Kinyamahura in Jomba

At first sight the Kinyamahura spontaneous camp in Jomba in the foothills of North Kivu’s volcanoes looks quite promising with its red brick buildings surrounded by eucalyptus, a large health centre and bean crops growing vigourously on every patch of fertile black earth.

The first impression is dispelled pretty quickly by the stories from the displaced who have found refuge here.

The beans — the staple crop in this region — were planted by the local congregation and the priests to whom the land belongs. They have warned those in the camp not to touch for fear of damaging relations with the local community.

The community has already shown itself to be very welcoming, with more than 1200 displaced families — more than double the number living in the camp — having been taken in by local families.

Displaced children in Kinyamahura, Jomba. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017

The health centre run by the church is indeed well-equipped but inaccessible as the displaced would have to pay for treatment. And as for the buildings, some of them once dormitories, they afford protection against the numerous downpours in the region, but inside, each cubicle, made from tarpaulin and plywood, is home to two families, irrespective of the number of people.

The relatively cool, damp climate means most of the displaced have colds and there is an oppressive sense of enforced idleness.

Those who were in the camp between March and May benefitted from food distributions but since then there has been nothing. As in the other camps those who venture further afield in search of food risk having whatever they find taken away at gunpoint and coming back empty-handed.

“Since we’ve been here, six people have died of hunger,” said Elisabeth Nyirahanza, a mother of five.

The displaced at Kinyamahura say that security conditions rule out returning home for the moment. They rather intend to ask the priests if they can make some land available for them to put up their own huts and cultivate their own beans.

Dorica Kabuo breastfeeds one of her twins in Kiwanja. Photo: Helen Vesperini/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017
In all three of these spontaneous sites the hardest hit are those who have just arrived and women on their own with small children who live in fear that inadequate nutrition, as well as malaria will mean their children getting sick and not surviving.

This story was written by Helen Vesperini for the UN Migration Agency’s humanitarian response in the DRC.