This post appeared on IPS News. This feature was first published by Degrees of Latitude Akilimali Saleh Chomachoma as producer and Sahwili interpreter.
By Elena L. Pasquini
Credit: Elena L. Pasquini
He moves aside the curtain, thin as gauze, and then bends over. The darkness dazzles for a few seconds when one enters the house—actually, a den made of earth where air and light filter through the narrow entrance. Jean de Dieu Amani Paye holds her tiny baby, wrapped in an elegant fabric, in his arms. He was a teacher of French and Latin and had a small business. He also cultivated the land: cassava, corn, sorghum, and beans.
Now he is a leader of the ISP camp on the outskirts of Bunia, the capital of the province of Ituri, where internally displaced people take shelter. His struggle is not only to survive but to also help those who have nothing left except a memory of horror. His struggle is against “grudges.”
“There are always grudges that remain in people’s hearts because they see the living conditions we lead here,” he explains. “If we think about what has happened since we arrived, it throws us into regret.” He escaped, having to leave behind everything, like almost two million other people in what is one of the worst and most forgotten humanitarian crises on the planet. He left his village due to the conflict in the region’s countryside, at the extreme north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda, where the green of the forest blends with the ocher and red of the land.
Bile Luchobe and the men and women who have reached the camps of Bunia from the territories of Djugu and Irumu explain what feeds the rancor. “They go around with the heads of those who kill and mutilate their bellies, then leave the bodies there, among the trees. The houses are burning down. It is impossible to remain in these conditions, so I fled,” she says. “They kill a person and eat his heart. It’s impossible to stay in a place like that.”
Since May of this year, the Congolese government has decreed a state of siege in an attempt to control a conflict that returns in waves like a damnation—from 1998 to 2003, and then until 2007. In 2017, there were less than 500,000 displaced people; now they number 1.7 million in a region slightly smaller than Ireland. The peak came in June 2020, when the brutality of the armed groups emptied the villages. Civilians are targets; terror and rape are weapons of war. A war too often described–in a manner akin to throwing alcohol on a fire–as simply the result of an ancestral hatred.
Bile fears that what happened in Djugu might happen here. “For women, whether you run away or not, these bandits will catch you, they will rape you. Even if there are ten people, they will all pass over you,” she says. She experiences panic attacks because in this patch of land, which should host four thousand people but lodges more than twelve thousand, the gunshots at night offer a reminder that war is not far.
The ISP – where Jean de Dieu, secretary of the camp’s steering committee, lives – was set up through the efforts of displaced people on the properties of Bunia’s Institut Supérieur Pédagogique and the Catholic diocese. They have built small shelters with reeds and mud on the slope of a hill, so close to each other that it’s hard to walk between them. There are also large common areas, a hangar crowded with too many souls. The ISP is not the only IDPs camp in Bunia. Kigonze is home to a growing number of persons. It has been established in 2019 by humanitarian organizations to receive those who lived on other sites now closed and to decongest the overcrowded ISP. It can be reached along a junky dirt road that cuts through cultivated land. There are no mud houses at Kigonze; instead, there are tarapulins, silvery and dazzling under the African sun.
Jean de Dieu comes from a small town near Walendu Bindi. He fled with his family, whose older members carried the children on their backs, on a Saturday afternoon in February 2018. They had not even a sweet potato to eat. The family knew that the militiamen had set fire to the houses in a nearby village and that the violence would eventually reach them. They fled all night, until the morning. “We waited for a truce. We wanted to return, at least to get some water. We learned that bandits had returned, had taken the goats, burned houses, and taken away the many things left.” He talks with his legs curled up and his back leaning against the intensely yellow wall of the room where his household members sleep and eat. “We still live here, despite the living conditions.”
Those who flee want to get to Bunia, which is safer than the rural centers. IDPs sites, although potential targets, are patrolled by police and soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping mission. However, a hiss is enough to generate panic. “If you hear the shots of the bullets 7 km from where you are, why can’t they get here? It is close to us,” Jean de Dieu says.
“The camp is open, there is no fence. It can be crossed; people pass from left to right. We don’t really know who they are. The assailants have already entered the city,” François Mwanza Lwanga adds with concern. He is among the leaders of the ISP camp, too. He is the president of the committee. He fled with his family and his very young baby—only two weeks old—from Sanduku, almost a hundred kilometers from Bunia. Reaching the city took them three days on foot. It was February 2018.
Elena Mbusi is sitting with Bile in front of her small house, a mirror nestled in the mud wall. She wears a blue dress with white motifs and puff sleeves. A beautifully knotted brown scarf adorns her head. A small crowd of youth throngs beside them. “I was not afraid, but this war is killing our children. This is the biggest loss,” she says. Elena arrived at the ISP on February 12, 2018, from Bahema Baguli and she is part of the team that organizes the life at the camp, too. Like Bile, hygienist. “We are here but we are really afraid. Several people send us messages saying that the fighting will reach us in the city, at the camp. But may they have mercy on us!”
The two women stand and slowly walk through the narrow alleys, up to a widening at the top of the hill where the wind blows and the smoke rises from the braziers on which food is cooked. Children play silently and the cassava dries in the sun on an immense cream-colored sheet. The hangar where Bile lives is not far away. It is a common house made of mud and wooden boards through which a very clear light filters through. A wall is covered with sacks and cloths that seem to gather all the colors of Africa. Children wash themselves in plastic basins while their mothers knead cassava flour to make foufou, a kind of soft grit or porridge. Bile, who lives at the ISP with her seven grandchildren and many other relatives, is frightened by the night crackle of firearms. “I’m afraid of almost everything. I am traumatized and to hear that what happened to Djugu is happening here… When I remember what happened in my village, I have panic attacks,” she says.
Only minor traumas can be relieved at the camps. When the conditions are too serious, patients are referred to the local hospital, while a Congolese non-governmental organization, Sofepadi, takes care of women victims of sexual exploitation, as Josèphine Atibaguwe, a nurse at the Kigonze camp, explains.
Fear paralyzes. Those who live in the camp know that. Outside, insecurity does not cease. There’s nothing to do but wait and hope that food aid, never enough, won’t be lacking. Leaving the camp is a risk that very few take. Children, on the other hand, beg in the city center, becoming easy prey for being recruited into armed groups. The sites where displaced people live mark the boundary between the city and the countryside, but the countryside is inaccessible. “Before, we would have gone to the fields near [Bunia] as day laborers, but those who have the courage to cross the Shali bridge never come back. If you go far, they can kill you for nothing,” explains Rachel Turache, a mother of five who lives in Kigonze and comes from Liseyi. She represents those who live in the bloc, 1 sector B.
“This life is too difficult,” Francois says. “We seem to be people without responsibility because we no longer depend on ourselves but on NGOs. We are unemployed and do not work. Our intelligence continues to decline. Children’s behavior is also changing.” The clothes hanging from the ceiling of his house, the pots in a corner next to a small stove where food is cooked by burning dark spheres of charcoal that dry in the sun, made of coal and water by women and children: Francois tells how hard it is. For his wife, it would be a problem if she could not find the pagne, a large piece of fabric women use to grid their hips. Those who are married wear it, a visible form of dignity and respect.
“It is not the life lived in the village. We ate well there,” recalls François. The children grew up well, while now, childhood malnutrition is rampant. In Kigonze, there is a feeding session every Wednesday for the most severe cases of acute malnutrition. Children are fed pre-prepared food made of peanuts, milk, and other ingredients. It’s cold at night, in Kigonze, and too hot during the day. Mosquitoes bring diseases. At the medical center, Josephine wears a pure white gown and distributes drugs: “The cases we record are mainly malaria, diarrhea, and, in children, malnutrition,” she explains. No Covid cases until now, but only fever and cough, and no plague, which has returned in Aru.
The houses of Kigonze are in parallel rows and overlook avenues where a little activity flows: a few motorbikes, small shops that sell everything, women crushing cassava leaves In a mortar, cassava is ground by noisy millstones. The longed-for life is that of rural Africa: lush, blessed yet tortured, where food is at war with minerals, where gold, agriculture, and livestock struggle to share the same land. Bile, who was a primary school teacher, farmed the land after work, as Rachel used to do.
“We try to live despite everything; certainly, this is not the life we led in our villages,” explains Rachel, her hands resting on a yellow pagne, a splash of color in the monotony of Kigonze’s light-colored shelters. The rhinestones on her blouse sparkle as she recounts what the war has destroyed, the mornings when she woke up early to look after the cattle before going to the fields, and the evenings spent sustaining the family income with a small business. “My greatest passion was feeding my cattle,” adds Michel Kiza Barongo, who sits next to Rachel in a pink plastic chair under a canopy. He comes from Fataki and was a village chief. Now, he is the chief of the bloc 15, sector B.
Accepting dependence on others, to lose what has been painstakingly built, is hard. Some try to go back, those who do not want to leave their homes, even if a truce does not necessarily mean peace. A few have managed to move back to their former lives. When Jean de Dieu’s village was attacked, not everyone reached Bunia immediately; some returned for the space of a season. “They also cultivated the fields, but as harvest time approached, [the violence] erupted again,” says Jean de Dieu. “As leaders and representatives, we are reassuring people by telling them that what happens today will pass, that they can stay in this situation because if they leave, they will continue to face other dangerous situations.”
Kigonze has a steering committee, like the ISP: displaced people who help other displaced people, together with local and international organizations, UNHCR, WFP, Caritas, and IOM. There is who is in charge of health, of women, spare time and children, or surveillance. At the ISP, there are thirty-eight avenues, streets, or “blocs,” each with its own leader.
They try to convince those who live in the camp to stay and break the spiral that leads to never-ending displacement, but they also try to tackle the hardest task: helping people bear the weight of suffering and not getting swallowed by another spiral, the one leading from rancor to violence. “What we are doing here is raising awareness to relieve their tension. We give advice so that displaced persons do not participate in demonstrations here and there in the city and so that they know how to deal with stress because everyone here has their own story,” Francois explains. There are stories like that of Bernadette Ngaji, a sixty-three-year-old from Largukwa, who witnessed violence and looting. She sits on the ground, on the threshold of her house in the Kigonze camp. The brown pagne decorated in purple and beige lies like a blanket on her outstretched legs, which she struggles to bend. Three bullets created a long scar on her left leg, which she must use as a pivot to get up. The right leg is marked by burns that look like faded petals.
“In my village, I was a hard worker. I had my own shop; I was selling fuel and I had three vehicles and everything has been burned… I’m here as a disabled victim of the war,” she says. Bernadette does not leave the camp because outside it would be worse. She will flee only if war reaches her there. Elena stays, too. “I can’t go back there, not in this insecurity. If there is a return of peace, of course, I will go back.”
In the darkness of the displaced lives, dazzling as when entering the cramped houses, one clings to Michel’s concise words: “It was the mutual help between the populations that struck me more.” Solidarity within a conflict whose reasons no one, from the ISP to Kigonze, can explain. Trying to understand them means unraveling a tangle of threads that from Bunia—the capital besieged by the desperation of those seeking refuge and sustained by the courage of those who struggle to weave the web of peace with those same threads—leads to rural villages and, then, much farther.