The long way home
Returning to your place of origin is the ultimate goal for people who have lived in displacement. But what happens when you return to less than you had before?
"I have nothing. I left with one piece of cloth — it is the cloth I'm wearing now," says Marie Bakumba, a 70-year-old woman from Mbulungu, a village in the southern Congolese province of Kasai.
Her haunting words linger under the hot, sticky heat of the quiet village. She sits and watches village elders chat under a large tree in the distance. She nods at the women who quickly, but self-assuredly walk by with piles of crudely cut wood on their heads. She smiles at the children playing and singing songs nearby. The only break in this picture of normalcy are two burnt out administrative buildings indicating the horror that once was. Marie Bakumba looks on with an air of sadness.
"I have suffered a lot," she says quietly looking down at her hands. "Immense suffering."
Bakumba is one of over a million people across the Greater Kasai Region in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who have been forced to flee because of a bloody conflict between armed groups over the latter half of 2016 and into 2017. The horrific violence spilled over into the tiny village of Mbulungu in March of last year. More than 16,600 people were forced to run up to 85 kilometres into the deep forest and hide for months for fear of being killed.
Most of the residents of Mbulungu are agriculturalists who grow food to sell in the local markets or to sustain themselves. Another resident of the village, Sangamai Teka, a 41-year-old mother of seven children ranging from ages two to nineteen, used to farm a plot of land and used the produce grown to feed her children.
“We went to work in the field every day,” she says, recalling the time before the war. “We farmed cassava and corn.”
Around 95 per cent of the population of Mbulungu fled into the forest between March and April of 2017. Homes were burned and pillaged, schools were destroyed, and health infrastructure was left in ruins.
The return to Mbulungu began in June 2017, when the militants were finally driven out of the village. The population of Mbulungu was traumatised and feared another attack. Many, even after being told it was safe to return, remained in the bush for months rather than face the threat of another surprise attack, and the return to the village was slow.
Those courageous enough to return was met with their sleepy village looking like an uninhabited war zone: Not only were their homes looted and reduced to ashes, but even their fields and the materials that they would use to rebuild their homes and create tools with were stolen or destroyed.
People returning to these villages had to travel between seven to 15 days on foot from their place of displacement to their home villages.
When the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) chose to intervene in Mbulungu and Bakuakashila, we found that many of the schools had been destroyed, there was no clean water available and all health facilities had been looted. In addition, many of the women who had returned had survived rapes, had lost their spouses and their children, and the dynamics between the youth were in disarray because some of the returned youth had fought with armed groups during the conflict.
“The child I am with lost his father in the conflict,” says Bernard Vita, 35, a merchant who lives about 30 kilometres west of Mbulungu in the village of Bakuakashila,as he points to the sullen-faced teenager seated beside him. “I took him and his mother in. That’s why we’re here.”
Most of the people who returned to these two villages were sleeping outdoors because they had no homes and no money to buy materials to build new ones. They were vulnerable to the elements — rainy season being particularly unforgiving in this part of the country. Their lack of shelter was also a protection risk as they were exposed to criminals and they lacked privacy.
"Sickness comes from the cold," Marie Bakumba says quietly. "It comes when we sleep in bad places".
A home to call one's own
The residents of both Mbulungu and Bakuakashila told us that their priority was to receive housing. Therefore, with the support of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), we gave assistance, in the form of cash, to the most vulnerable of these communities so that they could buy the materials and manpower to build their new homes.
“Our first priority, even if we are wandering, is to have a place to lay our head,” says Bernard Vita as he pulls twine to bind the sticks he is using to build his new NRC-funded home.
Our cash assistance intervention helped build 600 homes in both Mbulungu and Bakuakashila, providing shelter for some 3,000 people who were in desperate need. Unfortunately, immense challenges remain. We are currently the only humanitarian actor operating in this zone.
“There is no person or group of people who has come to help us — except for NRC,” Vita emphasizes.
Lack of funding threatens lives
Funding for humanitarian needs is thin across the country, let alone the Greater Kasai Region. The total Humanitarian Response Plan for DR Congo is only 25 per cent funded nine months into the year, with shelter being the lowest funded sector in the entire response.
“We are happy to serve communities like Mbulungu, but we cannot do it alone,” says our DR Congo Country Director, Ulrika Blom. “It is an utter shame that there isn’t enough funding to reinforce capacity to meet needs. If this doesn’t change, and fast, people will die.”
The lack of adequate resources was also a concern raised by the people we met in both villages. Many mentioned that there is so little assistance that there was a fear that it could cause fighting between people in need competing to receive help.
The other consequence to low funding is the fact that whatever funding is received has to be parsed out among the most urgent needs. Unfortunately, many donors do not see returnees as the most vulnerable or most in need of urgent assistance.
“It must be recognised that we do more harm than good when we are not able to properly cover the needs in vulnerable communities,” continues Blom. “Humanitarians are left to choose between certain people in need and leave others behind. Needs will only double, if not triple, if we continue on this path.”