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Civilians Suffer in Crossfire of DRC Conflict

  • Gabe Joselow

Displaced people from the town of Sake gather at the Mugunga camp on the road to Goma, DRC, November 23, 2012. (G. Joselow, VOA)

Displaced people from the town of Sake gather at the Mugunga camp on the road to Goma, DRC, November 23, 2012. (G. Joselow, VOA)

A humanitarian crisis is deepening in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, as rebel soldiers hold their positions against Congolese military forces.

The town of Sake, west of Goma, has been deserted since M23 rebels took control following a two-day battle with Congolese forces.

The shops have all closed, as rebel soldiers patrol the streets and take their positions in the hilltops above.

Tens of thousands of people fled the town in the past days, streaming toward Goma, clutching their belongings and complaining about a conflict they have nothing to do with.

Jean Musubato Kapitola, a local administrator, hangs around the M23 rebels, who are drinking beer by a shuttered restaurant on the north side of town.

“The M23 are here, everybody has to follow their rules, to live with them so they don't die. So they cooperate with them but there is no work here," said Kapitola.

Kapitola says the town's residents all fled as the battle between M23 and the Congolese army, known as FARDC, began to heat up. Several homes were damaged in the crossfire. In one, an unexploded mortar was still jammed nose-down in the earth floor, after crashing through the wall.

Many of Sake's residents have ended up in displaced people's camps on the road toward Goma.

At the Mugunga camp, the floor of a church is lined with people's belongings. Some of the newly displaced say they have no food or money, and have had to rely on the generosity of the camp's longer-term residents to survive.

Twenty-year-old Moses Muhindo Bahate says the people here think the fight for Sake is not yet over.

“Because we know if at night they will fight again. They will fight again - the M23 and FARDC they will fight again, I think that," said Bahate.

Bahate says he would rather the government be in control of Sake instead of the rebels, and that he does not understand why they are fighting.

“I don't know, but we know that we want only the peace in East Africa, in east of DRC," he said.

The M23 rebellion is named for the date, March 23 2009, when a group of rebels signed a peace agreement to be integrated into the Congolese army.

They defected this past April, becoming the rebel movement as it is known today, and have been taking over territory in eastern DRC since then, including the commercial hub of Goma.

The United Nations says the group is backed by Rwanda, a charge M23 and Rwanda deny.

M23 is reported to be entering talks with the governments of the DRC and Rwanda in the Ugandan capital Kampala. A rebel spokesman in Goma, Amani Kabasha, says they are still asking that the government honor their peace deal.

“What we are asking the government of Kinshasa is to respect this agreement and we have been asking this since April. Instead of accepting this, they just oppose us, fighting," said Kabasha.

M23 fighters have defeated Congolese forces in recent battles around Goma. On Friday, the rebels displayed heavy weapons seized from the government troops, to show they have the fire power to keep fighting.
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