While some non-governmental organisations, including ACT members, have been able distribute some small amounts of aid, no one can provide any consistent assistance to those between Kibati and Rutshuru, or identify where the nearly 50,000 former inhabitants of the destroyed internally displaced persons (IDP) camps have gone.
ACT members in eastern DRC continue to work together to respond in the face of very difficult security and operational circumstances. An ACT aid worker shared the following first-hand report from an initial assessment mission:
The road to the rebel-held zone of Rutshuru was surprisingly smooth -- not a single check point, very few soldiers on the road, roadside commerce picking up little by little. Moreover, it was probably the closest to a paved road I had ever seen in DRC. However, the signs of last week's fighting were visible in many ways. Although many people had begun their way home from Kibati where they had spent a week without shelter and food, a colorful crowd of thousands of IDPs were still queuing up to receive a few protein biscuits and some material assistance from the aid agencies that were gradually resuming their aid operations after the area was declared somewhat secure.
Small groups of families were cautiously making their way home by foot, with their few belongings on their heads, babies on their backs and small children courageously keeping up the pace of return. Arriving at the entry point to Kibumba, the signs of the most intense combat of the year were evident: piles of empty ammunition boxes and shells, torn off shirts and jackets of soldiers with blood stains, and a massive telecom antenna that had collapsed to the ground in the cross fire.
As we arrived in Rutshuru town, where we were supposed to stay overnight, we began hearing shooting in the neighboring town of Kiwanja. First it was just sporadic machine gun fire, but very soon it turned into an exchange of heavy artillery fire. The echoes of the fighting made it clear that there was no way for us to get to Kiwanja - where we had expected to meet with local church-based organisations that could have given us some indication about where all the people had fled from the IDP camps a few days ago.
We had no choice but to return to Goma.
On the way back, we decided to stop in a village a few kilometers south from Rutshuru town, and was also badly affected by last week's fighting. Heavy fighting lasted for three days, during which the entire population of the village fled their homes to other towns, just to return in a few days and find their property looted and destroyed.
We had the chance to speak with the heads of two local ACT-supported organisations to get information on the situation after their own families returned home a few days ago.
"Some displaced families were staying here in our compound, but they were forcibly driven away. Then they told us that we too must leave. They chased us away saying they would come here and fight bitterly," said Elisabeth*, who runs one of the local organisations.
She and her family fled to a neighboring village along with the IDPs that they had been accommodating in their home. As soon as the echo of bombs and gunfire silenced, they returned to see what was left of their property. Almost 40 houses were completely destroyed and entire families inside those houses were dead. Another 170 houses were badly damaged by bullets and grenade fire.
Elisabeth's house was fortunately still standing, but the office of her organisation was looted. "They slept right here in this space, and here in the office and the warehouse they just took everything they could: sewing machines, the computer - everything. And the rest of the things are just broken and thrown all over," she said shaking her head while taking us to a tour of the ravaged offices.
"Look, they even slaughtered and ate our animals! Not one goat, not one chicken to be found," she said pointing at the empty shed where they used to have a small livestock breeding project for the benefit of vulnerable women.
We asked if they had any idea where all of the IDPs that had been expelled from the nearby camps had gone. Elisabeth sighed heavily. "Regardless to all we have been through here... we are lucky to be back in our homes, even the water supply is still working. Those from the camps... they were dispersed to all directions. Most of them rather hide somewhere because they are afraid."
Elisabeth told that some of the IDPs had no choice but to try and cross the Virunga National Park area to go towards the town of Kanyabayonga in the northwest. The areas to both north and south were battle fronts, and some were not able to get across to the eastern side of the village as fighting had already begun.
"Many of them died on the way - so many. You know there's nothing to be found in the park. No water, no food. The weakest just died out of thirst and exhaustion. Especially children, pregnant women, old and ill people... The quantity of miscarriages... and the amount of cases of sexual violence, I don't even dare to count."
By the time we finished our interview, Elisabeth was already busy thinking what measures she could take to start helping others, while the sound of the machine guns echoing from neighboring Rutshuru and Kiwanja only seemed to be getting closer.
* Name has been changed for security reasons.
Action by Churches Together (ACT) International is a global alliance of churches and related agencies working to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide.
Sidney Traynham, Assistant Communications Officer
(office: +41 22 791 6711 / mobile: +41 79 681 1868 / firstname.lastname@example.org)