Goma — In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the national army and United Nations peacekeepers are working to combat dozens of armed groups that have terrorized local populations. In North Kivu province alone, 1 million people - one-sixth of the entire population - has been displaced by violence. While combat rages, civilians are also fighting a daily battle of their own - the battle to survive.
At the Mugunga 3 camp for internally displaced persons, a few kilometers outside of Goma, more than 16,000 people have sought refuge from clashes between the Congolese army and M23 rebels.
Baraka Weja Marcel, a refugee in the camp, fled his home in Kibumba, about 20 kilometers from Goma, nearly two years ago. He claims the town is still occupied by the armed group.
Marcel says peace is needed so he and people like him can go back to their villages. He says life is very difficult in the camp, where he and six of his relatives live together. Their only shelter is a tent a few meters long and wide, fashioned from plastic sheeting. Inside, there is a yellow jug for water, some pots and an old, rusting bicycle. He says that when it rains, the shelter leaks. His situation is not unusual.
The World Food Program and other partner agencies help the displaced with food, clean water, sanitation and other basic needs, but their existence is nonetheless grim. Even in the camp, they are not entirely safe from the threat of armed groups.
In the eastern Congo, the United Nations has a force of 20,000 police and troops, known as MONUSCO. They protect civilians and support the Congolese army as it builds its capacity and works to take on about 39 different rebel groups which have been attracted to the region by its wealth of natural resources and lack of government control.
In addition, MONUSCO has been beefed up with an experimental offensive force called an Intervention Brigade. It will soon number 3,000 troops; the last contingent is scheduled to arrive this week. Next month, it will become the first U.N. peacekeeping mission to get an unarmed drone to help track rebels.
Ray Torres, who heads the U.N. mission's Goma office, said recent successful operations against the M23 have led to an increase in the number of fighters defecting from its ranks and the ranks of other armed groups. They also are now more willing to consider peace initiatives.
But as small gains are made, large threats still remain. Torres says that in North Kivu, the M23 and the FDLR, a Rwandan Hutu group, are the biggest security threats. He also notes the growing emergence of a third group, the Allied Democratic Forces, or ADF, which operates along the Congo-Uganda border.
"[The ADF] is establishing and strengthening its position in the north of the country. It is very strongly ideologically based. It is an extremist Islamist group that is developing a network of businesses that indicates to us that they are planning to stay. And it seems lately, according to the latest information, that they may be planning operations against FARDC [the Congolese army]," said Torres.
A delegation from the U.N. Security Council visited the area Sunday. Civil society representatives told the ambassadors they want more action on ending the recruitment of child soldiers and on protecting women from sexual violence.
They said the state must extend its control over the whole country, noting that in 75 percent of the territory in North Kivu is in the hands of different armed groups. They also demanded that perpetrators be punished and recommended the council authorize a specialized court for serious human rights violations in Congo.
Baraka Weja Marcel said he hopes the national army and MONUSCO will be strong enough to chase all the armed groups away, so that peace can come and he and all the other displaced persons can return home.