Flood of refugees amid Congo conflict

Fresh fighting between the Army and Tutsi rebels has prompted new camps of displaced persons to spring up suddenly in the past three weeks, taxing efforts of relief workers to provide food and adequate shelter.

In a field of dried lava outside of Goma, some 20,000 Congolese villagers arrived en masse in mid-September, building huts in clusters and sending children in search of food and firewood. They had fled their homes after a new bout of fighting between government troops and ethnic Tutsi rebels.

The political crisis has challenged the international community and the new Congolese government for solutions, but has also created a humanitarian emergency that has propelled an estimated 65,000 displaced civilians from their homes.

The timing is particularly bad. It is the start of the rainy season, a time when most of these villagers should be out planting crops of beans, maize, and cassava. A lost planting season means hunger and could spur civil unrest.

"This was the planting time, and I didn't have the time to cultivate," says Ngulu Kishigho, who fled his home in Kimoka a few weeks ago, just days after fighting erupted on Aug. 27. Speaking of the ethnic Tutsi rebel, Gen. Laurent Nkunda, he shouts, "Nkunda made us flee. If you kick his men out of there, we will go back. We don't want to stay even one day longer in this place."

Humanitarian groups were just beginning to meet the massive needs of the estimated 300,000 civilians who were displaced by Congo's deadly civil war of 1997-2003, in which invading armies from Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe moved in to topple the tottering dictatorship of former President Mobutu Sese Seko.

But old issues, including the presence of a Rwandan ethnic Hutu militia blamed for the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 on Congolese soil, were left unaddressed by the government. When three Tutsi businessmen were murdered in December 2006, General Nkunda launched an all-out war on the government and the Hutu rebels, claiming his role as protector of his Tutsi community.

"We already had 650,000 displaced people in the Eastern Congo before this crisis began last December," says Sylvie Vanden Wildenberg, spokeswoman for the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC) in Goma. "Humanitarian aid was supposed to be switching from an emergency phase to reconstruction, which is now impossible. The whole situation is creating huge suffering."

"If they are going to find a solution soon, this will help our efforts," says Patrick Lavand'Homme, head of the UN Office of Coordinating Humanitarian Assistance in Goma. Noting that North Kivu Province alone accounts for half of the country's people displaced by war, he adds, "If not, it's not going to be just 300,000. We're going to see 100,000 or 200,000 more."

Compared with the estimated 2.5 million Sudanese displaced by the conflict in Darfur, Congo's emergency may seem small. Yet time and hard work have transformed the chaotic Darfur camps of 2004 into orderly cities. Just three weeks old, the new Congolese camps have largely appeared overnight, without planning. The challenge of providing food, shelter, toilet facilities, and medical care for tens of thousands of people – especially during the torrential east African rainy season – puts severe strains on humanitarian staffers and current aid channels.

In the past three weeks, food and nonfood assistance has been delivered to nearly 65,000 newly displaced people, according to UNOCHA, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and more relief is available for the unknown number of people who may have fled into rebel-held areas. But insecurity and a shaky cease-fire have meant that most aid has been given out in government-held areas thus far.

This puts aid workers, who are neutral in any war, in an uncomfortable position of appearing to pick favorites. A recent aid convoy of 11 trucks attempting to reach rebel-held areas around Mushaki, conducted by the French aid group Solidarite, was halted by an angry crowd in the town of Sake, the last town in government hands. Displaced people in Sake accused Solidarite of feeding the rebels, while displaced people in the rebel-held town of Mushaki complained that they haven't received food aid since the crisis began. Indian peacekeepers for MONUC held back the crowds, but received their share of abuse as well.

Conditions in the displaced camps around Goma are abysmal and chaotic, despite the efforts of aid workers. Fields intended to be registration sites have rapidly grown into ad hoc towns. Deliveries of food and water are regular, but latrines are still being dug around the clock. Aid groups like UNICEF have started vaccinations for children, and water and sanitation officials keep an eye out for any signs of water-borne diseases.

Mapendo Justin, himself a displaced person, is chief of the committee of displaced people at a new camp near Mugunga. He says that villagers in his part of Masisi District fled from Nkunda as soon as the fighting broke out, but many fled even earlier, when the general's militia started forced recruiting of young boys and even girls.

"We walked for two days," he says. "People with children had it the hardest, and it's not known how many of them may have died along the road from exhaustion. In wartime, you can't stop to count the bodies."

One high school student from Bufamando, north of Masisi, says he knows his new camp is vulnerable to attack because it's close to the front lines. But he doesn't worry, he says. "We have police in the camp, and we have our own guns, too. The young people who were fighting provide for our security."

Nearby, as the sun gave way to a damp tropical dusk, Kahindo Bezeni bent a green sapling to make herself and her six children a hut. She looks up at the darkening sky. It will rain tonight, she knows, and her work picks up pace. "I don't have any shelter, I don't have any plastic sheeting, no blankets, no pots or pans," she says. She points to a pile of saplings on the lava-hard ground. "I just bought these sticks."

If she works fast, those sticks will be her home tonight.

Coming next: A look at General Nkunda and his rebellion.

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