DR Congo

Eastern Congo: "We are forced to flee every two months"

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Storm clouds are gathering and the wind is tugging at the plastic sheeting covering the hundreds of makeshift shelters that make up the Mungote camp in Congo's troubled North Kivu province. Over 30,000 people live here, unable to work and with little access to food.

The camp sits on a large lava field, a reminder of an earlier eruption by nearby Mount Nyamulagira, one of Africa's most active volcanoes. The black rocks add to the feeling of gloom and despair surrounding what is the largest camp for people displaced by the fighting in North Kivu. In response to an outbreak of cholera, a team from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has arrived in the camp. Frank Mungombe, a water and sanitation engineer, has ordered the camp sprayed with disinfectant to kill the cholera bacteria. Mungombe's team is also building latrines and showers to prevent the spread of the disease. So far, two people have died in the outbreak and hundreds more are infected.

On one of the camp's narrow pathways I meet 30-year-old Ruti Riziki. Ruti arrived here three days ago after escaping fighting in the village of Bukala, a day's walk away. Fighting between the many armed groups active in North Kivu has forced her to flee her village numerous times in recent years. Last week, she says, Congolese government troops moved into Bukala only to be confronted by units from the rebel Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

"Many people were killed in the crossfire," Ruti says, as she escorts me to her makeshift shelter. "I saw bodies lying dead in the street. I saw men with guns looting houses and then walking away with everything, even mattresses. The only thing I managed to bring with me was a frying pan. "

"We have been forced to flee every two months," Ruti says. "Every time we return to Bukala we have to build a new house. Now if we go back we will build temporary homes from straw. There's no point in building anything permanent from hard materials, because it will only be burnt down."

The core of the FDLR fled into Congo from neighboring Rwanda after being accused of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and have been a source of unrest in eastern Congo ever since. The situation has worsened since the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeeping forces launched a joint military operation against the FDLR earlier this year. Another rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), has thrown its lot in with the government and is now fighting alongside the national army, but this has not brought any more security to the region. A report by UN experts that was recently leaked to the press concluded that the joint military offensive had failed to rein in the rebels and has worsened the already dire plight of civilians.

"The scale of the suffering is massive," says Danielle de Knocke van der Meulen, who runs the IRC office in Goma, North Kivu's main city. "The military offensive has scattered the FDLR into smaller groups, making ever larger areas of North and South Kivu more insecure."

An estimated 900,000 people have been forced from their homes in North and South Kivu provinces since the military offensive began in January. All told, a staggering 1.8 million people are thought to have been displaced in eastern Congo.

Ruti, her husband and their three children have moved into a small crude shelter covered with plastic sheeting. The floor is muddy and flattened cardboard nailed to a flimsy frame made from tree branches serve as walls. While water is provided by aid groups, food is a serious problem. Unable to grow their own crops, the people here rely on United Nations food rations. But they are not distributed regularly, residents say. The last distribution-six kilos of beans, salt and two bottles of cooking oil per person-took place almost one month ago, Ruti and her neighbors say. To survive, Ruti's husband spends his days looking for temporary work in the nearby fields. Normally farmers pay about 1,000 Congolese francs (a little over U.S. $1) for a day's work. So far, he has only been able to work half a day.

"We are hungry all the time," Ruti complains. "We only eat once a day, in the evening. It's mainly cassava and bananas."

While the situation in the camp is very hard, the prospect of Ruti and her husband returning home is remote.

"There is just so much fighting," Ruti says, shaking her head. "I have no idea what will happen to us. We just want to go home and live in peace. But this is not possible."