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For Congolese displaced by the M23 war, host families offer a ‘heart of solidarity’

‘They are the first to save us while we wait for the humanitarians to arrive.’

KANYABAYONGA, Democratic Republic of the Congo

WHEN thousands of displaced Congolese arrived in the eastern town of Kanyabayonga fleeing M23 rebels last month, local resident Jeanine Bitasimwa acted as she always does in these circumstances: She welcomed destitute families into her humble home.

“We agree to welcome the displaced because we do not know if we too will be displaced one day in this country, which only seems to experience war,” Bitasimwa told The New Humanitarian on a visit to Kanyabayonga late last month. 

Some 1.5 million people are currently uprooted following two years of ruinous conflict between the Rwanda-backed M23 armed group and the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is supported by foreign states and local militias.

Aid groups and media reports have largely focused on the plight of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in official camps, mainly around the city of Goma, which is the capital of North Kivu, the province most affected by the conflict.

Yet holding together the humanitarian response in villages and towns across North Kivu – where Kanyabayonga is located – is an army of host families who have flung open their doors and are sharing out their scarce resources.

Jeanine Bitasimwa is hosting 25 people from eight different families that fled the M23 conflict. She said this solidarity requires a lot of sacrifices.
Jeanine Bitasimwa is hosting 25 people from eight different families that fled the M23 conflict. She said this solidarity requires a lot of sacrifices.

Host families like these play a central role in almost all humanitarian responses in DRC – where some seven million people are internally displaced overall – yet rarely do they get recognition as frontline relief actors in the way that aid organisations do.

Kanyabayonga, a hilly town of around 60,000 people, embodies the solidarity that motivates host families. Yet it also lays bare the challenges they are facing in responding to the M23 war, and to the many other conflicts ongoing in eastern DRC.

As tens of thousands have arrived in the town amid a recent M23 offensive, hosts said their ability to help is reaching capacity. Many are already struggling with climate shocks and with a local conservation park that encroaches on their land.

The hosts said they would benefit greatly from infrastructure investments that increase Kanyabayonga’s absorptive capacity. They also said they should be given humanitarian assistance in the same way that displaced people often are.

For their part, displaced people said they often feel like a burden, even when they help their hosts with farming and harvesting activities. Some said they often don’t want to ask hosts for food or medicine, despite sorely needing both.

25-year-old Clovis Kasereka is staying with a host family in Kanyabayonga but feels like a burden. “We have only been fed like children,” he said. “We don't even know how to express our needs.”
25-year-old Clovis Kasereka is staying with a host family in Kanyabayonga but feels like a burden. “We have only been fed like children,” he said. “We don’t even know how to express our needs.”

“We weigh on host families,” said 25-year-old Clovis Kasereka, who has experienced war five times in his life. “We fled without any provisions, and we have only been fed like children since we have been here. We don’t even know how to express our needs.”

‘They are the first to save us’

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

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Rwanda’s interventions in DRC led to wars that sucked in other regional states and further weakened a country that had already been devastated by brutal colonial rule, foreign meddling after independence, and the exploitation of its resources. 

Kanyabayonga residents like Bitasimwa have witnessed much of the turmoil. She sheltered people in 2008, when the CNDP (the M23’s predecessor) was rebelling, and then again in 2012, when former CNDP fighters joined a new insurgency as the M23.

Sitting on a mat outside her five-room house – which is hosting 25 people from eight different families – Bitasimwa told The New Humanitarian that hosts like her do so not because they have the means, but because they have a “heart of solidarity”.

For Kasereka, who is staying with Bitasimwa, living with a host is better than being in a camp. He said having a roof over you beats a tatty tarpaulin, and that food is easier to obtain when you aren’t packed into a field with thousands of others.

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“In Kanyabayonga, which does not attract the attention of humanitarians like Goma, one can die of hunger more easily in a displaced person site,” Kasereka said. “The majority of host families farm, and we can therefore find something to eat.”

Gervais Balikwisha, a human rights activist who escaped the village of Kishishe, where M23 fighters carried out massacres and rapes, said host families are quicker to respond than aid groups, and do so without bureaucracy. 

“They are the first to save us while we wait for the humanitarians to arrive,” Balikwisha said. “They receive us without targeting, without procedure, just to protect those who suffer in the streets without housing.”

It is not just host families that are taking in people in Kanyabayonga. Local churches and schools have also made space available for thousands more displaced people, and other forms of social solidarity have flourished over the past year, residents said.

The grounds of a school that is hosting dozens of displaced people who fled the M23 conflict in March.
The grounds of a school that is hosting dozens of displaced people who fled the M23 conflict in March.

Kakule Vusa Anselme, president of the local youth council, said members of the council went door to door in Kanyabayonga last year to collect food and non-food items, which they then distributed to the most deprived displaced people.

Since March, a group of 12 local schools has also managed to collect aid from the families of their pupils, said Kasereka Simisi, a teacher and director from Maendeleo school.

“We teach children to show solidarity with those who are suffering,” Simisi said. “We ask them to come with what their parents can easily find. “There are those who come with sweet potatoes, bananas, beans, cassava chips, clothes, and firewood.”

Park guards and encroaching rebels

Despite the efforts of the local community, Bitasimwa, a mother of seven, said host solidarity is being stretched to the limits by the M23 crisis – one of the worst she said she has witnessed in the past 20 years.

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Bitasimwa said that last year one of the displaced people she was sheltering died at her house, while another group she was hosting received some humanitarian aid and then left without offering to share any of it.

This year, Bitasimwa said she has had to harvest her entire cassava field to feed her growing household, a decision that has negatively impacted her family, who are cutting back on daily meals and now “eat without feeling satisfied”.

Micheline Kalipi, coordinator of Solidarity Action for Youth and the Sustainable Environment, a local NGO, said host families are even becoming more vulnerable than displaced people after repeatedly helping those forced from their homes by conflicts.

“With each wave of displacement, they welcome numerous families, feeding them to the point of exhausting both their crops and savings,” Kalipi said. “When humanitarian assistance is available, only the displaced are targeted, and host families are ignored.”

The amount of food that Kanyabayonga’s hosts are able to give away has, meanwhile, been affected by a recent drought and by the presence of M23 rebels near their fields, which are often a two-hour walk from the town.

Residents said their land has also been reduced by the Virunga National Park, a protected area (known for its mountain gorillas) that was violently founded by Belgian colonialists, and which continues to restrict communities from their ancestral land.

“In the past, the population cultivated near the Virunga National Park, but since park authorities banned communities from working in these areas, we have had record-breaking famine,” said Fatiri Jean-Chrysostome, the mayor of Kanyabayonga commune.

Jeannette Bahati has been living in a local administrative building since fleeing the M23 conflict. She has been suffering from malaria but has no money for treatment.
Jeannette Bahati has been living in a local administrative building since fleeing the M23 conflict. She has been suffering from malaria but has no money for treatment.

Local resident Augustin Muhindo said he was recently arrested by park guards and then imprisoned for three months after entering the park to collect food for his family and for the displaced people they are currently hosting.

“I went to harvest cassava [and] the park rangers arrested me, accusing me of invading the park,” Muhuindo said. “My father is exhausted, my mother too. How are we going to help feed these displaced people?”

The limited capacity of the hosts is having dire consequences for the displaced. Since March, 10 displaced people have died because of illness and hunger, according to Richard Kalume, secretary of the Kanyabayonga displaced persons committee.

Denise Feza, a displaced person who is living in a church in the town, said she lost one of her four children – an eight-month-old baby who died on 12 March because she could not afford medication from a dispensary.

“My baby died while I was laying her down on that mat,” she told The New Humanitarian, between tears. “We just buried him with my displaced roommates, and I can’t understand that I will eventually return home with only three children.”

Four other sick children who are staying at the church after being separated from their parents while fleeing to Kanyabayonga could succumb to a similar fate, added Zawadi Matata, a woman who is also residing in the church grounds. 

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“When I think about how Feza lost her baby, I fear for these others here,” she said. “We have no money to take them to the hospital, so they are there, just lying under these church pews.”

What host families want: Infrastructure, aid, and an end to the war

Local residents who spoke to The New Humanitarian all said humanitarian support to host families would help alleviate some of the stresses they feel, and would also lessen the possibility of tensions between hosts and their guests. 

“Someone who had their field of cassava will exhaust everything to bring solidarity, then be abandoned in the dust [when their guest receives help],” said Kalipi, the local NGO director. “It creates tensions. It weakens social cohesion.”

“Humanitarians say we are economically more stable than the displaced, but they are wrong,” added the host, Bitasimwa. “Since we have consumed everything to feed the displaced, it is also important to think of us when there is help.”

Other residents called for longer-term infrastructural and development improvements in Kanyabayonga. Once an important commercial crossroads, it has seen traders progressively move away due to cycles of insecurity and conflict. 

Léonard Muhindo (on the left) is hosting more than 20 people but doesn’t know how much longer his ageing mud-brick houses will be able to sustain them.
Léonard Muhindo (on the left) is hosting more than 20 people but doesn’t know how much longer his ageing mud-brick houses will be able to sustain them.

There are few durable houses in the city, too few roads, and the town’s public water system remains unfit for purpose, a deficiency that can lead to disease outbreaks when displaced people arrive in large numbers.

“Neither the state nor humanitarians have thought of investing in the supply of drinking water even though we regularly welcome displaced people,” said Léonard Muhindo, a local resident who has lived in Kanyabayonga since 1978.

Muhindo, who is the father of Augustin Muhindo (the man arrested by park guards), said he is currently hosting more than 20 people but doesn’t know how much longer his ageing mud-brick houses will be able to sustain them. 

“We no longer know when this war will end,” Muhindo said, adding that he is disappointed in the political leadership of the country. “Unfortunately this is only getting worse.”

Kasereka, the 25-year-old displaced person, said he is planning on returning home when the situation stabilises but will stay in regular contact with the host family in case he has to return. “May the host families not tire of helping us,” he said.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.

By CLAUDE MUHINDO SENGENYA

Freelance journalist based in Butembo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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