Misery of Congo’s refugees caught in a cycle of relentless violence

The Times of London
Sake, DR Congo

Congo's displaced
A displaced Congolese family stands at the top of a hill overlooking Sake and Lake Kivu (Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

The dead soldier lay on a dirt road cut into the steep hillside outside Sake, a bloody bullet hole in his neck. Empty ammunition crates lay abandoned nearby. In the town were other corpses, still wet with blood.

The battle on Thursday between government soldiers and M23 rebels was the first time that the army has fought back since being chased from Goma, the regional capital, two days earlier.

Ignoring international calls to stop fighting and withdraw from Goma, M23 has continued to annexe more territory, even threatening to march on Kinshasa and overthrow the government of President Kabila.

Rwanda has been accused by UN investigators, human rights groups and the Congolese Government of backing M23, which began as an army mutiny seven months ago. M23, which renamed its military wing the Congolese Revolutionary Army, takes its name from a March 23 peace deal in 2009 that it says was not honoured by the Government.

Rwanda’s continuous denials are being given little credence. This week Britain described the allegations of Rwandan support for the rebels as “credible and compelling”.

The latest fighting triggered an exodus from Sake as the entire population emptied on to a ribbon of broken tarmac stretching towards Goma, almost 17 miles (27km) away. Tens of thousands of people trudged in a thick stream carrying children and possessions as mortar bombs exploded on the hillsides and bullets flew through town.

One woman shouted as she walked: “This is politics in Congo, this is what happens to us, look!”

Sake was left a ghost town, the usually busy market empty, shops padlocked, houses abandoned. A few dozen rebels milled about near the dead soldiers.

One of the few civilians left was Timothy Mashamba, who lost his four children in the panicked escape from Sake. The youngest is only two years old. “I have to stay here or my children won’t know where to find me,” he said despite fears of a government counter-attack.

For the civilians swept up in Congo’s fighting the misery is as relentless as the violence.

At Mugunga, a swelling camp for displaced people on a rocky volcanic plane near Sake, Sirire Mufanjara was rebuilding his hut. He came to Mugunga with his wife and 11 children in May when fighting forced him from his home in the early days of the M23 rebellion.

On Tuesday as the battle for Goma raged he fled again, along with all the other camp residents. He spent two nights sleeping out in the open, shivering in the rain with his family. “All I could take with me when we ran was my children,” he said.

Mr Mufanjara returned to find that retreating government troops had looted the camp, stealing all of his meagre belongings, including the plastic sheet that made his grass hut waterproof. “Everything was taken,” he said. “I am here now but the fear has not gone. All I want is to go home, to live in peace.”

When the M23 advance began last weekend rebel fighters swept through another camp called Kanyarucinya. Again tens of thousands of people were on the move as the bullets flew.

Among those who made their way to Mugunga were Jeanne Furaha and her two young children. “The shooting was all around the camp, we had to run,” she said, cradling her seven-month-old baby daughter. As she reached Mugunga the fighting caught up with her and she was forced to flee into the hills. “I don’t know if we will be safe here,” she said soon after returning.

Some of the heaviest fighting during the rebel takeover of Goma happened only a few kilometres from Mugunga. A tank was abandoned on the roadside, a pile of live tank rounds next to it. A short parade of shops was peppered with bullet holes, a metal security door blown out by a rocket-propelled grenade.

A regional meeting to try to end the conflict is due to be held in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, today but in eastern Congo there is little sign of a détente. Yesterday M23 continued to advance south towards the city of Bukavu and north towards the mineral-rich mines of Masisi.

Many in rebel territory regard M23 as little more than a Rwandan proxy but even so, as he waited for his lost children to come home, Mr Mashamba said that he did not blame Rwanda for the new war.

“I blame Congo’s Government. I don’t blame Rwanda: they didn’t invade, we let them come in because Kabila is incompetent. He doesn’t deserve to be President,” he said.