— Tens of thousands of people fled fighting Thursday near the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
As fighting raged in the hills above the town of Sake, west of Goma, its residents hit the road.
Mothers carried their children, others pushed bicycles, held mattresses, or pulled goats behind them. More than a few shook their machetes at a group of foreign journalists observing the exodus from the side of the road.
Soldiers from the rebel group M23 claimed to have taken control of Sake a day earlier, their most recent conquest in a campaign to seize territory in eastern Congo, including the commercial hub of Goma.
But, according to residents fleeing Sake, the rebels have started to face resistance from other rebel groups operating in the area.
This woman, who declined to give her name, blamed the Congolese army for failing to protect the town.
“This morning we just saw the M23 occupy the nearby hill,” she said. “Right now they have started fighting with the militia group. The government troops are not here, because they have run away.”
M23 sent reinforcements to Sake on Thursday. Civilians from the area said the rebels had retreated somewhat from the town by late afternoon.
The rebel group seized control of Goma on Monday, after pushing back Congolese army units who were supported by United Nations peacekeepers.
While Goma has been mostly peaceful since the rebel takeover, tensions are still high.
Photo Gallery: Rebels in Goma
M23 rebels guard weapons given to them by the government's army, Goma, DRC, November 21, 2012.
A Congo government policeman hands in his weapon to M23 rebels during an M23 rally in Goma, DRC, November 21, 2012.
Congo government policemen, foreground, and civilians gather during a M23 rally in Goma, Congo, November 21, 2012.
A M23 fighter, wearing a belt of ammunition, walks down a street in Goma, after the rebels captured the city from the government army, November 20, 2012.
People walk the streets of Goma, DRC during a lull in the fighting, November 20, 2012. (VOA 100 Citoyens journalistes de RD Congo)
M23 rebels in the streets of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, November 20, 2012. (A. Malivika/VOA)
M23 rebels enter Goma, November 20, 2012. (A. Malivika/VOA)
M23 rebels celebrating their takeover of Goma, DRC, November 20, 2012. (A. Malivika/VOA)
M23 spokesperson Lt. Col. Vianney Kazarama entering Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, November 20, 2012. (A. Malivika/VOA)
M23 Rebels patrolling in Goma, DRC, November 20, 2012. (A. Malivika/VOA)
In a statement Thursday, the aid group Oxfam
warned of the “very real risk” of state collapse in eastern Congo that could push the humanitarian crisis
to “new depths.”
The fighting around Goma has displaced at least 60,000 people on top of hundreds of thousands already displaced by chronic violence perpetrated by armed groups in the region.
Meantime, the residents of the area are waiting to see M23's next move. The rebels have vowed to press on south around Lake Kivu to the town of Bukavu.