Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Two days after rebel fighters seized a provincial capital from government forces, hundreds of civilians have been leaving a camp for the internally displaced and returning to their homes in a former battle zone in eastern Congo.
"I saw it myself today in Mugunga III [camp|," said UNHCR's Kouassi Lazare Etien, referring to a camp located on the outskirts of Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province. "Now the fighting has stopped [in their native Rutshuru territory some 30 kilometres to the north], they want to go home. . . nobody's forcing them," he added.
But he said they were also being driven by the interruption of assistance caused by the security situation, while stressing that North and South Kivu provinces remain very unstable and fluid. UNHCR staff said heavy gunfire could be heard coming from North Kivu's Sake area on Thursday afternoon, which fell to the rebels on Wednesday. Displaced people were said to be heading towards Goma some 20 kilometres away.
Etien heads the refugee agency's office in Goma and has remained in place throughout the crisis, including the moment it was seized by the rebel M23 movement on Tuesday. He noted that the population of Mugunga III and other camps, such as Mugunga I and Lac Vert, had been increased by people fleeing the fighting, including more than 30,000 from Kanyaruchinya to the north of Goma. But their situation has become more and more difficult.
"Over the last three or four days, because of the crisis, no humanitarian actors were able to go to the camp, therefore the IDPs who left Kanyaruchinya for Mugunga did not receive any assistance," he said, adding that since Wednesday many had started heading back to their homes in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu.
"Now that the M23 has taken Goma, they think Rutshuru territory is safe enough for them to go back, and also because of their predicament in the IDP camps, where they are not receiving full-scale assistance," he noted. UNHCR and many other humanitarian organizations withdrew non-essential staff to Rwanda earlier this week.
Etien, who visited Mugunga to try and assess needs, said he hoped that the authorities and aid agencies, including World Food Programme, would be able to provide two or three days of food rations to those returning home to help build up their strength for the journey
"We want to start helping," Etien said, citing transportation for the most vulnerable returnees, once the security situation allowed it. UNHCR and its key partners, UNICEF and the WFP, are working together to try and ensure aid can resume. Some aid has been given to the neediest.
But Etien said people who had fled their homes in Masisi territory, when the fighting between the government and M23 first erupted in April, were not returning. He said their plight was an "urgent" issue for UNHCR.
Meanwhile, the UNHCR official said the situation in Goma appeared to be returning to normal, with shops opening and lots of motos on the road, a sure sign of normality. "We can see people roaming town without any problem," Etien said.
But the general situation in the east and across the country is tense and uncertain. At a public meeting in Goma on Wednesday, an M23 spokesman said the next objective was Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province, which has also been plagued by violence and displacement.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that there are more than 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 newly displaced between July and September.