DJAFFAR AL KATANTY
WHEN Paskazia Kimanuka heard gunfire near her home in eastern Congo in early November, she knew what to do. Grabbing just a few possessions, the 58-year-old widow set off on foot with her six grandchildren – the third time M23 rebel’s attacks have forced her to flee.
Walking through the night, Kimanuka had to carry the smaller children as they trudged 57 km (35 miles) to a displaced people’s camp outside the regional capital Goma – a familiar place of relative safety from fighting surges this year that have displaced over a quarter of a million people.
“We have nothing at all. Look inside, I have nothing,” Kimanuka said, sitting outside a makeshift tent which leaked when torrential rains swept the camp each day.
Kimanuka was first displaced in 2012 when the Tutsi-led M23 seized vast swathes of North Kivu province and briefly overran Goma before they were chased out by Congolese and United Nations forces into Uganda and Rwanda the following year.
“We abandoned our homes to sleep badly and eat badly in places of refuge,” she recalled.
She returned to rebuild her life in her hometown of Rutshuru, but this year fresh M23 offensives forced her twice more from the town.
Regional efforts are underway to resolve the conflict, but the fighting has reignited diplomatic tensions between Congo and neighbouring Rwanda. Congo accuses Rwanda of backing the group. Rwanda denies the accusation.
The M23 is seeking to pressure Congolese authorities to fulfil agreements with Rwandan-backed armed groups that include allowing rebels to reintegrate into the regular army. They also say they are fighting other eastern militias that they claim pose a threat to the Tutsi community.
Overall around 280,000 people have been displaced by the M23 attacks since March, bringing the total number of displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo to 5.3 million, according to the U.N. humanitarian agency OCHA.
They have not only lost their homes but also their usual means of supporting themselves with subsistence farming or trading, creating a humanitarian crisis that has led Congo to have the largest number of food-insecure people in the world, according to the latest U.N. data.
In Kanyaruchinya camp, Kimanuka’s grandchildren helped her prepare their one meal of the day.
One grandson fanned the fire and fetched water for the pot, while his little sister carefully wiped the dirt off the few potatoes they had to share.
Kimanuka was only able to buy the food thanks to a stranger who gave them some charcoal to sell when she went begging door-to-door in a nearby village.
“I pray for God to make our government strong so that it can drive out these … rebels and we can return home,” she said, after handing one small potato to each of the children.