Fighting in DR Congo: “The rebels have taken young boys from my village to send to the front line”

 
As fighting between the insurgents of the March 23 Movement (M23) and the military approaches Goma, the capital of the Congolese province of North Kivu, villagers are taking to the roads to avoid getting caught in the crossfire and prevent their children from being kidnapped. The refugees establish makeshift camps, which relief agencies are trying to provide with basic supplies.
 
The relative calm in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) only lasted for two weeks. On July 24, insurgents from M23 (who joined the Congolese army in 2009 but who defected in March) once again attacked the Congolese Armed Forces around Rugari and Kimumba, two towns located 30 kilometres to the north of Goma. These towns are seen as the last barriers on the rebels’ road to the provincial capital, according to the country’s diplomats.
 
Since the start of their offensive three months ago, it seems that the rebels have easily advanced into strategic towns in the region. Their progression has led to authorities fearing an attack on Goma, where the region’s United Nations Peacekeeping Force (MONUSCO) has decided to strengthen its presence by placing tanks around the town.
 
 
Fleeing the attacks, villagers are abandoning their homes to find refuge in other towns, where national and international aid agencies, working closely together, are trying to distribute water, tents and food supplies. They have to adapt quickly in order to help people where the violence goes, as Simplice Kpandji, information officer at the UN Refugee Agency for the DRC, explains: “As well as the 31 refugee camps in North Kivu which we supervise, there are spontaneous campsites which are set up and then abandoned, according to what is happening in the area. At these sites, there is no organised structure in place to receive refugees. Sometimes they even stay in churches and in schools. In an emergency situation like this, it’s better than nothing. But we still encourage people to go to the official camps because of hygiene concerns in the long-term.
 
The difference between the “official” and the spontaneous refugee camps is that the former have health centres and are built for humanitarian purposes. At the Goma Mugunga 3 camp, for example, authorities have just provided the UN Refugee Agency with a piece of land to enlarge the camp which, in three months, has gone from housing 2,000 to 10,000 refugees.
 
 
 
Just this week, fighting between the army and the rebels led to 2,000 people hitting the road. They have flooded into Kanyaruchainya camp, a new spontaneous campsite less than 10 kilometres from Goma. In total, more than 220,000 people were displaced by fighting in this region between April and June.
 
These photos were all taken on Wednesday July 26 at Kanyaruchainya camp by our Observer Alain Wandimoyi. He allowed us to speak to a refugee via telephone.
 

“The UN forces are there to protect us but, because they don’t intervene, we feel unsafe”

Innocent is a farmer and the father of seven children. In mid-July, when he saw the M23 rebels approaching, he and his family left Rugari and headed to Kanyaruchainya, just 10 kilometres from the provincial capital Goma.
  
It’s war back home. We knew that the rebels were coming and that they were burning people’s homes in the neighbouring villages, destroying everything in their path. Before attacking my village, they came to take young boys to send them to the front line [according to several sources quoted by Radio Okapi, the UN radio station in the DRC, rebels from M23 recruit boys from the villages they take control of, sending them to neighbouring areas for training. Meanwhile, a recent report by Human Rights Watch criticises the forced recruitment of civilians, both adults and children. These new recruits, the report says, are captured from both sides of the DRC-Rwanda border]. MONUSCO is there to protect us but, because they don’t have the right to directly intervene, we feel unsafe. [MONUSCO has come under criticism, notably from Amnesty International, for doing too little to protect civilians, instead focussing efforts on providing technical support to the Congolese army]. So we left, without having the time to take anything with us.
 
 
We’ve been sleeping in schools and churches since then. The men have been given trousers and the women received clothes. They also handed out cassava flour and beans. But we’re suffering a lot, and I want to go home.
 
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