Congo-Kinshasa: Crowded Camps and Local Aid - How DR Congo's M23 Conflict Is Impacting Goma

A family reunited in Goma (file photo)

Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo — "We are pleading for the return of peace. When we have peace, we will live well."

Renewed fighting between the M23 armed group and pro-government forces in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo has pushed thousands more people into Goma, the largest city in the east and a humanitarian aid hub that is now encircled by the Rwanda-backed rebels.

Goma's previous population was around 1.5 million, but an additional 700,000 people have arrived during the past two years of conflict, including more than 200,000 that have come in recent weeks as the M23 expands its control over an unprecedented amount of territory.

Displaced people, local and international humanitarian workers, and Goma residents all described a city buckling under huge strain, with overwhelmed displacement camps, food prices rising sharply, and the fear of an M23 takeover looming large.

"Life is extremely complicated here, we have no tarpaulin and no food," said 32-year-old Prudent Kahindo, who arrived in a Goma camp with her three children in February. "We ask for help because people here risk dying from hunger."

The M23 descends from a long line of DRC rebel groups backed by neighbouring Rwanda. Support began in the 1990s as Rwanda hunted down Hutu militias that fled to DRC after committing genocide against Rwanda's Tutsis.

The rebel group was defeated after its last major insurgency a decade ago, but was revived by Rwanda in late 2021. Rwanda offered support because it felt its influence in eastern DRC - which it sees as its backyard - was waning compared to regional rivals.

The recent escalation has further dented confidence in regional mediation efforts led by Angola and Kenya. Meanwhile, European states have signed mineral, military, and asylum deals with Rwanda instead of penalising it, outraging many Congolese.

Despite the catastrophic humanitarian conditions in Goma and beyond, officials from international aid agencies told The New Humanitarian that relief groups are struggling to respond comprehensively due to the high demand and insufficient levels of funding.

Resources are also stretched thin for the many local initiatives that Goma residents have set up to aid displaced people, and for the thousands of host families who have flung open their doors to accommodate uprooted relatives and friends.

"We come here just because we have the desire to help others," said Marie Buhuma who is part of a local collective called Goma Actif and was volunteering last week in a displacement camp. "If others also came with this kind of motivation... we could help many people."

Full hospitals and blocked roads

The number of people displaced by the M23 war is around 1.7 million, though the conflict is just one of many in the country, which is still impacted by the legacy of colonial rule, foreign meddling after independence, and the ongoing exploitation of its resources.

The M23 says it won't seize Goma - which is the provincial capital of the war-torn North Kivu province - but its fighters are within touching distance and have choked the city by cutting off most of its access roads.

Anne-Sylvie Linder, who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Goma, told The New Humanitarian that prices have doubled or tripled for basic goods like maize, charcoal, and beans because of the blockade.

Riziki Christian, a 40-year-old trader at Goma's Kituku market said she is selling bananas for up to six times the price because of supply-side challenges. She called on authorities to reopen the roads out of Goma but argued that peace "is the only solution".

Recent weeks have, meanwhile, seen civilian casualties soar as increasingly heavy weapons - drones, surface-to-air missiles, and sophisticated assault rifles - are used near urban areas, including around Goma, which has received more displaced people than any other place impacted by the M23 conflict.

Linder of the ICRC said their hospital in Goma - one of the only ones that can perform life-saving surgery - is currently "very near" capacity. She said 40% of patients are civilians, mostly women and children, whereas before it was mainly combatants.

Local residents and aid officials said Goma has also become an increasingly militarised and dangerous place, as the Congolese army and its allies seek to defend the city as well as the nearby town of Sake, which came under M23 assault in February.

In addition to the army and police, private security contractors hired by Kinshasa, a grouping of local militias known as Wazalendo (meaning 'patriots'), UN peacekeepers, and a recently deployed southern African force are all present in the city.

Analysts say the combat now increasingly resembles a regional conflict, with Rwandan soldiers fighting alongside the M23, and southern African troops - from Malawi, South Africa, and Tanzania - as well as Burundian soldiers, fighting against them.

Crowded and dangerous camps

The humanitarian situation is most acute for displaced people. With formal camps already full, many of those uprooted by the latest fighting have set up tents along roads or in people's backyards, or have moved into makeshift settlements.

Janvier Luanda Mukuba, the head of one such displacement camp, which is inside the grounds of a Pentecostal church and is hosting around 45,000 people, said displaced people lack food and only have access to a mobile health clinic for a few hours a day.

"Our situation remains complicated because we have changed our way of life," said Mukuba. "Before we each lived in our own house. But following the war, we abandoned all our possessions as well as our different occupations: teachers, farmers, breeders."

Zawadi Havugimana, a 28-year-old mother of four who is living at the same site, said she gave birth in February, a day before having to escape her home. She said she has been kept afloat thanks to support from other displaced people and Goma residents.

"I am especially worried about the health of my children because cholera has arrived in this camp," Havugimana told The New Humanitarian. "This is why we are pleading for the return of peace. When we have peace, we will live well."

The increased presence in Goma of armed men - from the Wazalendo to the Congolese army and its contractors - is having a major impact on displaced people, especially women and girls, aid officials and camp residents said.

Many of the camps are close to national parks and fields where women and girls venture to get firewood or food for their families. According to medical organisations, hundreds have been raped by armed men, often with unclear affiliations.

Men inside the camps are also being arbitrarily arrested or assaulted, according to aid workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian. They said the culprits are often soldiers, police officers, and members of the Wazalendo alliance.

Mukuba said an additional problem in his camp is that displaced soldiers and their families are living alongside civilians. He said the soldiers shouldn't be chased away from the church but emphasised that "their presence brings trauma" to people.

Community aid: 'Our presence gives them hope'

The increased militarisation and insecurity is also impacting international aid agencies in Goma, said Emilie Vonck, country director in DRC for the American NGO Mercy Corps, which is working in half a dozen camps around the city.

"Most of us have had to reduce time spent daily in the camps in an attempt to ensure the safety of our teams," Vonck told The New Humanitarian, explaining that concerns have been raised with the Congolese authorities.

Low funding is also affecting relief efforts, and not just for the M23 conflict: Across the country, more than seven million Congolese have been displaced by violence, and around a quarter of the 100 million population are facing severe hunger.

"Globally the amount of money that is going into the crisis and the needs in DRC... is decreasing year after year," Vonck said. "That is obviously a concerning trend given the needs are going in the other direction."

Given the limits of international aid, and a lack of support from the Congolese government, residents of Goma have launched several of their own interventions, either as groups of ordinary well-wishers or through mutual aid networks and local NGOs.

The Goma Actif collective, which formed in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, has been assisting displaced people in the camps for the past two years, said Marie Buhuma, the volunteer.

Speaking to The New Humanitarian while arranging a porridge distribution and a play session for children at the Pentecostal church, Buhuma said she was herself displaced as a child and wants to "give a smile" to those affected by the current conflict.

Also present at the church were volunteers from a local NGO called AGIR-DRC. They too were preparing porridge while singing, dancing, and arranging games for displaced children.

Lucie Banyanga, one of the AGIR-DRC volunteers, said the group has been preparing porridge every day for several hundred people but is struggling to sustain its efforts due to a lack of resources.

"We are still making fundraising appeals... to anyone of good will to provide assistance because everything counts and it can help the children get the porridge," Banyanga said. "When the children see us they are very happy... Our presence gives them hope."

Camp resident Annie Bashonga, who has five children and was separated from her husband during a chaotic escape to Goma, called the volunteers "saviours" but said what displaced people really need is the conflict to stop.

"Even if we receive donations, what is most important is the return of peace." Bashonga told The New Humanitarian. "My dream is to see my children return to their normal lives."

Edited by - and with additional reporting from - Philip Kleineld

Arlette Bashizi, Documentary photographer based in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Fidèle Kitsa, Journalist based in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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