A Makeshift Existence

Tens of thousands of refugees displaced by fighting in eastern Congo are desperate for food rations and other international aid.
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 9, 2008


Even before fighting flared, Anita Kakule and her smallest son lived on a tattered straw mat in a corner of a schoolroom. When classes met, she relocated their mat and three salvaged pots to the shade of a nearby eucalyptus tree.

"It's because of Nkunda. Because of Nkunda, I'm here," she said, directing her anger at rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, who since 2006 has fought to control North Kivu province, which includes Rutshuru. "This is the second time I've had to leave everything. And this time, all I've got are those pots. And that bag of flour."

But her new borrowed perch offered too fragile a refuge. On the night of Oct. 28, Nkunda's forces stormed Rutshuru, pressing southward toward the provincial capital of Goma. The offensive, coupled with the chaotic retreat of the national army, forced at least 100,000 people onto the roadways, a surging human column fleeing in panic. According to U.N. officials, all makeshift camps for the internally displaced, including Kakule's temporary home, and three U.N.-administered camps in Rutshuru have been flattened, burned and looted by unidentified armed men, their 40,000 to 50,000 residents dispersed toward unknown locations.

"These places look like a football field now," said Ibrahim Coly, bureau chief for the U.N. refugee agency in North Kivu.

In a war of ever-shifting fronts, where, in sporadic bursts, Nkunda's forces fight the Congolese army and at least six other predatory militias, more than 1 million inhabitants of North Kivu have become perpetual nomads, many of them uprooted multiple times. The new exodus deepens a crisis that already threatened to overwhelm international aid efforts.

At the first crackle of gunfire from militias or soldiers deployed from hill to hill, villagers caught in the crossfire flee, terrified by men in uniform who loot their homes, rape their women and force their men or boys to follow them and take up arms. Often at night, and always on foot, they abandon mud-and-banana-leaf huts and flood the roadways, balancing mattresses and other salvaged objects on their heads.

Most languish in one of 16 tent cities administered by the U.N. refugee agency. Others head to the homes of acquaintances already overburdened by survivors of previous clashes, or to temporary sites at schools and churchyards, their lives held in suspension by fear and uncertainty.

In the courtyard outside the Rutshuru schoolroom, Frederic Mburano Ntibimenya, a teacher with a clutch of pens in his breast pocket, said he has not been able to convene classes in his village since September.

Looking hard at his shoe, he explained that he had left behind his wife, who was too sick with malaria to leave her bed. He had no choice, he said. It was that or risk the lives of his seven children. He had no idea whether she was alive or dead.

But he dared not venture back toward his village until he was sure the situation had calmed. When, he had no idea.

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