News / Africa

Uncertainty Takes Toll on Civilians in Eastern DRC

People displaced by recent fighting in eastern Congo wait to receive aid food in Mugunga IDP camp outside of Goma, November 24, 2012.
People displaced by recent fighting in eastern Congo wait to receive aid food in Mugunga IDP camp outside of Goma, November 24, 2012.
Gabe Joselow
The rebellion in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom had been uprooted before, sometimes more than once.  As the M23 rebels prepare to withdraw from the city, the impending security vacuum could actually make the situation worse.

Mugunga camp

Thousands gather at the Mugunga camp for displaced people outside of the town of Goma.

Who Are the M23 Rebels?

  • Named for March 23, the date of a 2009 peace deal
  • Contains fighters once loyal to a rebel army who assimilated into the DRC army, then defected
  • Formed in early 2012
  • Dominated by the Tutsi ethnic group
  • Also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army
  • UN experts say the group is backed by Rwanda, which Rwanda denies
Many have arrived in the past week, having been displaced by fighting in the area between the M23 rebels and Congolese and U.N. forces.  Families sleep on the floors of churches and schools while they wait for a more permanent place to settle.

A 53-year-old father of 11 children, Sirie Nufanjala, is tying plastic sheeting around his home in the camp to keep the rain out.

He came to the camp from Masisi in May, after the rebellion first broke out, but had to relocate again last week when Congolese soldiers retreating from Goma looted the camp and took his belongings.

“Life was hard here before,” he says, “but then later some NGOs came in and started helping us and we started living nicely.  But then the war came and things changed again."

The United Nations refugee agency estimates 140,000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting, joining hundreds of thousands of others previously uprooted.

And now, the people of Goma live in uncertain times, as M23 rebels make moves to withdraw from the city following talks with the government.

Situation could deteriorate

Christina Corbett, with the humanitarian organization Oxfam, says her group is making preparations in case the situation becomes volatile.

"What we can do is be flexible in our programming and make sure that we can get as much as possible done now so that if for any reason for a couple of days we cannot work, at least we will have some resources in place," she said.

Corbett says Oxfam has been providing water and sanitation to camps throughout the region, more or less as normal with the rebels in charge.  But she says there is always the risk of insecurity when power shifts from one group to another.

"When there is any kind of security vacuum, there is always a huge risk that someone is going to take advantage and looting and banditry and general chaos can ensue.  So these are all huge security issues and there are not any easy answers, we can not predict what is going to happen," she said.

The rebels have sent mixed signals on their intent to withdraw from the city.  While M23's military leadership under General Sultani Makenga says fighters have already begun to leave, the political wing says they will not retreat until the government meets their demands.

  • Congolese policeman in riot gear keeps an eye on Goma residents, including street children, who gathered for an anti-Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, DRC, November 28, 2012.
  • Congolese policeman in riot gear keeps an eye on Goma residents, including street children, who gathered for an anti-Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, DRC, November 28, 2012.
  • Protesters in Goma, DRC, Nov. 28, 2012 (VOA Photo / Primo-Pascal Rydahigwa)
  • Goma residents, including street children, gather for an anti-Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, DRC, November 28, 2012.
  • Protesters in Goma, DRC, Nov. 28, 2012 (VOA Photo / Primo-Pascal Rydahigwa)
  • A column of Congolese M23 rebels motion to the photographer not to take pictures on the Goma to Rushuru road, north of Goma, November 27, 2012.
  • Congolese M23 rebel fighters detain a man they suspect to be an FDLR (Force Democratique de Liberation du Rwanda) rebel returning from an incursion into Rwanda Near Kibumba, north of Goma Nov. 27, 2012.
  • A column of Congolese M23 rebels on the Goma to Rushuru road, north of Goma, DRC, November 27, 2012.
  • A Congolese boy walks towards Kibati, north of Goma, DRC, after being told to do so for his safety by M23 rebel fighters, November 27, 2012.
  • A boy carries a goat along a road near the town of Sake, about 27 kilometers west of Goma, DRC, November 27, 2012.
  • The South Africa contingent of the U.N. peacekeepers in Congo erect a razor wire barrier around Goma airport, DRC, November 26, 2012.
  • A woman carries her child in Minova, 45 kilometers west of Goma, DRC, November 26, 2012.

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