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Refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo took a turn for the worse in recent days as at least 23,000 people fled new burst of conflict near the Ugandan border

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Internally displaced people take shelter at a school in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hundreds of thousands have fled the conflict between Congolese forces and rebels allied with Rwanda.Photography by Robert Bociaga/The Globe and Mail

Daily survival for Kwirine Soridoyi is a perilous task. The 58-year-old widow sleeps in a school classroom in eastern Congo after fleeing a Rwandan-backed militia group that killed her husband and mother.

In the daytime, she harvests firewood illegally from a nearby forest, dodging attacks from the owners.

“If they catch us, we can be beaten up or raped,” she says. “You can’t go alone because you won’t come back.”

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Kwirine Soridoyi carries firewood.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes because of fighting between the rebel M23 militia and the Congolese army this year. The crisis took another turn for the worse in recent days when at least 23,000 people fled from a new burst of conflict near the Ugandan border.

Many of them crossed the border to Uganda on the weekend, carrying their possessions in bags on their backs. The rest are seeking makeshift accommodation in Congo in any building that will take them. About 500 have found refuge in a convent.

The latest exodus is intensifying one of the world’s deepest and most neglected refugee crises. Across the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about six million people have been internally displaced or forced to flee to neighbouring countries.

The latest crisis began last November when the M23 militia – named after a peace deal on March 23, 2009, which the militia claims was never fulfilled – returned to combat against the army after eight years of inactivity. Since then, it has captured villages and killed scores of civilians in indiscriminate shelling and executions. United Nations reports have documented how the rebel group is supported by the Rwandan military.

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Children carry water at the camp, where cholera has taken hold.

At a camp on the outskirts of Goma, one of the biggest cities in eastern Congo, many displaced families are sleeping in school classrooms. By day, the classes are filled with students. At night, the homeless families lay down on mattresses or blankets in the same rooms. An aid group donated tents to the families, but many decided to sell the tents for food.

Dusabe Hangi, a 40-year-old woman, fled from her village in June when two of her family members were killed in the M23 conflict. It took her two days to walk to Goma. “We came without anything,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview.

She describes how the homeless families have survived by gathering vegetables from nearby farmland. One day they found one of their friends in a field, killed by slashes from a farmer’s machete after she tried to take vegetables. “We took her body from there and we never went back to that field,” she said.

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At top, children trade vegetables after school. Displaced people here have to sleep wherever they can.

The camp, known as Kanyarutchinya, was already home to hundreds of families who had escaped the eruption of a nearby volcano last year. New arrivals, fleeing the M23 conflict, have added to the overcrowding at the site. To survive, they sell vegetables or charcoal at a market, or do odd jobs for people in the closest town.

Stability in the region is maintained, in part, by a UN peacekeeping force. But there is growing dissatisfaction among the Congolese, who accuse the peacekeepers of failing to protect them. In July, hundreds of protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs at the peacekeepers and set fire to UN buildings. Four peacekeepers were among 36 people killed in days of fighting.

Jean-Paul David, a 49-year-old farmer, walked for 70 kilometres to reach Goma after his village was engulfed in a battle between M23 and the army in June. He said the rebel group was armed with mortars and other heavy weapons as it attacked an army base in his village. “After they overran the army base, they stole the weaponry, set the tents and houses on fire, and killed some villagers with machetes,” Mr. David said.

Even before the M23 crisis, hundreds of thousands of displaced people had been homeless in eastern Congo for years. One man, whose name The Globe has agreed to keep confidential because of the danger to his life, was kidnapped in 2020 by militants from the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist rebel group. He survived 40 days of captivity in the bush until his family was able to raise enough money for a ransom. Now he and his family are sheltering in a church near the Ugandan border. Daily life is a struggle, and he is afraid of being targeted again.

He is thinking about travelling to Malawi, where many Congolese have found haven at the Dzaleka refugee camp. But the camp – built for 14,000 refugees – now holds more than 50,000 people, with hundreds more arriving from Congo every month. The camp has been hit with budget cuts, because of a lack of funds from donors. Earlier this month, hundreds of people at the camp marched on its UN offices and burned tires to protest delays in promised cash payments to help them buy food. They said they sometimes go days without food.

With a report from Geoffrey York in Johannesburg

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