Feza Wineza left her displacement camp in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo one morning in April, seeking food for her young son who did not have enough to eat. When she returned three days later, she said her child had died of hunger.
“He was a good child; he was very humble,” Wineza told The New Humanitarian from Kalinga camp, which is perched on slopes surrounding the town of Masisi, in the restive province of North Kivu.
Wineza is one of around a million people in North Kivu that have been displaced amid a rebellion by the Rwanda-backed M23 armed group, which claims it is fighting to protect local Tutsis and because the government broke a past peace agreement.
Aid agencies say insecurity and insufficient funding from donors means they are failing people displaced by the conflict, whose humanitarian impact is among the worst of the various ongoing insurgencies in eastern DRC.
Humanitarian relief is particularly sparse for displaced people scattered across North Kivu’s rural territories of Masisi and Rutshuru, where the M23 – thought defeated after its last rebellion a decade ago – has seized ground since last year.
But conditions are also dire for those who have sought safety in camps on the outskirts of Goma, the sprawling capital of North Kivu, and a hub for international aid agencies and a UN peacekeeping mission.
In the absence of reliable assistance, local community groups – who often criticise aid agencies for spending large sums on the salaries and living conditions of expatriate staff, and other overheads – have been distributing food in some camps.
Displaced people are also increasingly relying on each other: Women are providing counselling services in camps to survivors of sexual violence, while other residents are donating funds to support makeshift pharmacies.
Still, it is hard for displaced people to support one another given their own level of need, said 40-year-old Dusabe Kanane, who fled an M23 attack in May and is now living in a camp on the outskirts of Goma.
“That lady laying down, she looks like she is sick, but she is not really sick,” Kanane said, pointing at a lethargic woman on the floor next to her. “She is starving... but I am not able to help her. There is no way to even feed my children.”
International neglect: ‘They don’t think about us’
The M23 is led by Congolese Tutsis and descends from a long line of DRC rebel groups with links to neighbouring Rwanda. Support began in the 1990s as Rwanda hunted down Hutu militias that fled to DRC after committing genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis.
Rwanda’s interventions led to civil 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.
Last month, relief agencies in DRC activated a “system-wide scale-up” to boost support for families displaced by the M23 conflict. The mechanism is used by the aid sector when a crisis demands more international attention and extra funds.
Raphaël Piret, country representative in DRC for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said aid groups have been taking “more action” since the scale-up began. But he described efforts as “timid” and insufficiently coordinated.
The medical NGO has repeatedly criticised aid agencies involved in the M23 response for being too slow to spend the funds that are available to them, and for clustering around Goma while overlooking people in more rural areas.
“Talk to all nations, remember us, we are suffering here. It seems like the international community has already forgotten us.”
Even with the recent scale-up, Grant Leaity, a UNICEF representative, said his organisation has a funding gap of $361 million this year for eastern DRC. The World Food Programme (WFP) has said it is short of over $750 million for the whole country.
The New Humanitarian spoke to more than 50 residents of 12 displacement sites in April and May to document how the M23 conflict has deepened needs in the east, where more than 100 armed groups are active and 5.7 million people are displaced.
Many camp residents said they had only received food aid once since escaping the violence – some several months earlier – while others said they had gotten nothing. Camp leaders also consistently referred to children dying of hunger in the sites.
“Talk to all nations, remember us, we are suffering here,” said Olivier Bakulu, the secretary of a camp in Sake, which is just to the west of Goma. “It seems like [the international community] has already forgotten us. They don’t think about us.”
Crowded camps and dangerous journeys
The Goma camps are close to the offices of most aid groups operating in eastern DRC, and to the luxury hotels, restaurants, and expatriate guest houses that have sprung up around them in recent years.
Yet despite the heavy humanitarian footprint, the displacement camps lack access to water and other basic services. There have been recent outbreaks of cholera and measles, and malnutrition rates are well above emergency thresholds.
Illness is not the only danger for residents: Some camps around Goma are built on top of sharp outcroppings of volcanic rock. Leaks of methane gas, locally known as mazuku – Swahili for “evil wind” – have cost several lives.
Congolese mutual aid groups have been providing food in some Goma camps, and should carry on with these efforts, said Rebecca Kabuo, an activist from LUCHA, a civil society group. “Why not continue with this solidarity as Congolese?” Kabuo said.
Other camp residents said informal work has helped them make ends meet. “With my machine, at least I can get some money and survive,” said Justine Dushimbe, an 18-year-old who repairs the clothes of other displaced people in Goma.
Venturing outside of the camps to find work can be dangerous, however. Women and girls said they face the risk of sexual violence, while others described predation and attacks by armed groups.
Residents of Mahyutsa camp in Sake said 16 people were killed when they returned to their village to gather food from abandoned fields in March, travelling near M23 held territory.
Survivor Uwimana Nyirarugwiro, 40, said she managed to hide while uniformed men, that she and others described as M23 fighters, shot four people and burnt 12 others inside a locked house.
Before the incident, residents said they had sent letters to the UN’s emergency aid coordination agency (OCHA) and to WFP stating that they had received only one aid distribution and were in urgent need of assistance.
Neighbourly support: ‘When he comes back he will share’
Congolese that have fled to more remote areas in Masisi, Rutshuru, and Lubero territories are getting even less assistance than those around Goma, aid workers and displaced people said.
Several aid organisations said they have pulled back from rural areas due to insecurity. Others said they worried about the optics of working in places controlled by the M23, whose links to neighbouring Rwanda make it domestically unpopular.
Road travel from Goma to rural areas requires crossing multiple checkpoints manned by different armed groups, aid workers said. Humanitarian aircraft have also come under fire this year, causing suspensions in North Kivu and the adjacent Ituri province.
Some of the relief that has gone beyond Goma has been blocked by M23 fighters, who have also tried to dictate who gets assistance in areas they control, two aid officials said.
The lack of international relief in Masisi – where there was a high level of humanitarian need even before the M23 conflict – means people are surviving on the generosity of local residents and fellow displaced people.
“Our lives depend on our neighbours here in Masisi,” said 48-year-old Fatima Luneno, who lives in Materdei camp outside of Masisi town. “There is someone who can give bananas, another can give us flour, and so on."
Joseph Habinshutu Baraka, a camp-elected secretary at Adventiste displacement site in Masisi added: “If you didn’t go out today to look for [food], and your neighbour did go out and found something, then when he comes back he will share.”
Avril Benoît, executive director of MSF-USA, who was in North Kivu earlier this year to coordinate advocacy efforts for the organisation, said her teams have encouraged other agencies to increase their presence beyond Goma.
“There are a lot of needs in areas that… are insecure, but that is what humanitarians do,” Benoît told The New Humanitarian in an interview in April.
A shaky ceasefire
Displaced people who spoke to The New Humanitarian all said they wanted to return home given the terrible conditions at camps, but very few felt it was safe enough to do so.
Though an April ceasefire led the M23 to retreat from some of its holdings, the group has taken offensive positions in recent weeks, according to the UN, and there are fears of a resumption of hostilities.
A permanent resolution to the conflict remains a long way off. International actors are hesitant to push Rwanda into stopping support for the M23, and Kinshasa is leery of negotiating with the disliked rebels in an election year.
For its part, the M23 has maintained that it will continue fighting until its demands are heard. These include amnesty for its combatants; the protection of Congolese Tutsis; and the return of members of the community exiled to neighbouring countries.
Obed Nduwayo, a 38-year-old from Bulengo camp in Goma called for the government to “restore peace” for the sake of those displaced. “We need our children to go back to school, we need food, we need to live as other people do,” he said.
Additional translation and logistical support from a Congolese researcher who asked not to be named.
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.