The residents of Balobe must rebuild their village after it was destroyed in the conflict between militias and the army. Photos by Alain Wandimoyi.

For a decade, the Bafwasende territory in the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo has suffered from a violent ethnic and tribal conflict that has caused massive population displacement. The former inhabitants of the Opienge and Balobe villages have been trickling back to their abandoned homeland since 2010 and starting over from scratch. Our Observer tells us about how these “returned refugees” are faring.
Five years ago, 12,000 families, or about 60,000 people, lived in the region, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kisangani. For about 15 years now, the Congolese military has been fighting against Maï-Maï militias who are seeking to gain control this mineral-rich territory. In 2009, the conflict intensified and caused the local residents to flee, leaving behind the villages of Opienge and Balobe, which are located 60 km apart from one another. They were left empty for months.
To reach the village, the ICRC had to cut down hectares of vegetation.
During their progressive return between 2010 and 2012, the former residents found their villages completely destroyed by the war. The area is very hard to access because it is deep in the Congolese rainforest, so humanitarian organizations were only able to provide assistance there from 2011 on. This support took the form of seed aid and help in restarting agricultural activity.
Since 2012, the ICRC has implemented a “cash-for-work” system that pays residents to rebuild their village, thereby injecting money into the area’s struggling economy.
A half-rebuilt house. 

“Villagers spent months living in the forest, living off wild fruit and hunting”

Alain Wandimoyi is a photographer and blogger. He lives in Goma, in eastern DR Congo.
Reaching Balobe was quite an ordeal: we first had to drive 340 km with the ICRC mission to get to Opienge. Between this village and Balobe, there was no more road, no human presence, just lush vegetation that blocked our way. It was impossible to get there by car, so we had to use motorcycles, and had to drive through rivers and over rickety bridges. It took us a little over six hours to go 60 !
Cars cannot access this area, and motorcycles have to cross makeshift bridges.
“They have lost everything, but they have an incredibly energy to rebuild their lives”
In Balobe, I met people that had lost everything: their houses had burned down, their crops had been destroyed, and nature had taken over during their absence. Villagers told me how they spent many months, perhaps years, in the Maiko National Park, a large forest nearby, living off wild fruit and hunting to survive. They did not know how long this lasted, but it felt like an eternity.

Since 2010, these people have been slowly returning to Balobe. They have lost everything, but they are incredibly energetic; they want to rebuild their lives. First, residents rebuild their own houses, but then they help others rebuild their houses, all with very little equipment. There is a strong sense of solidarity between the villagers, who feel responsible for one another. This cash-for-work system is very important for them: it gives them back their dignity and they get $70 from the ICRC for each rebuilt house.
A villager rebuilds his house as part of the ICRC’s “cash-for-work” system.
“The villagers are dependent on traveling salesmen, who can take up to 4 hours to reach Balobe by bicycle”
The villagers have also received various tools, such as fishing nets, to help them find a sustainable means of making a living. To make money, villagers mainly rely on selling their goods to the military in the area, as they have they are those with the most means. They purchase fish or vegetables that the villagers grow. This helps revive the local economy.

Despite these measures, life remains very expensive: prices are on average three times higher than in cities. To get vital goods such as medicine, villagers depend on traveling salesmen, who can take three to four hours of biking through the forest to reach them.
The ICRC has distributed equipment to allow villagers to fish and sell their catch.
What I found touching was the villagers’ joy at our arrival. The area is very difficult to reach, and they see very few people from outside their village, so they are overjoyed to see people who are interested in them and want to help them.
We often speak of the fate of the internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in other countries touched by war, but we rarely speak of those who return after having lost everything. Given all that they’ve lived through, I find them extremely brave.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).