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‘I just want to return home’: Displaced Congolese on the M23 conflict and the need for peace

‘My big wish is for the government to bring peace.’

Rosette Riziki Rutare sits with her sewing machine in a displacement camp in the eastern city of Goma. Arlette Bashizi/TNH
Rosette Riziki Rutare lugged her sewing machine as she escaped M23 rebels in the hope she could avoid begging while living in a displacement camp in the eastern city of Goma.

More than 600,000 people have been displaced since the M23 rebel group re-emerged in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in late 2021. But what is life like for those uprooted? What journeys have people taken to safety? And how are they providing for themselves and their families as the conflict spreads?

Earlier this month, The New Humanitarian asked Congolese photographer Arlette Bashizi to pose these questions to newly displaced people living on the outskirts of Goma, which is the largest city in eastern DRC and is hosting more than a third of those uprooted.

Christiane Mukankusi Bashoboye, a mother of eight living in a camp that opened in January in Goma’s Bulengo neighbourhood, told Bashizi that her village in nearby Masisi territory, had been peaceful for a long time before fighting early this year forced her to leave. “It is all new for me to live in such conditions, under a small tarpaulin with so many children,” she said. “We just want peace.”

Those who spoke to Bashizi described living self-sufficient lives – as farmers, traders, and transporters – prior to the conflict. Some said they have set up small businesses in Bulengo to supplement distributions of humanitarian aid, while others are venturing into an insecure protected park near the camp to cut down and sell wood.

“The aid is not enough because there are a lot of displaced people,” said Rosette Riziki Rutare, a tailor who lugged a sewing machine to Bulengo as she escaped M23 rebels earlier this year. “We suffer a lot here, but it is better because we at least sleep in peace.”

Rutare and others in Bulengo called for humanitarian responders to improve conditions at the camp – especially water availability, sanitation facilities, and living space – which is hosting over 120,000 people and is one of several in Goma. Residents also called for Congolese authorities to restore peace in the region so that they can return home and restart their lives. 

Heavy fighting has continued between the Congolese army and M23 over the past few days following the breakdown of another regional ceasefire deal. The M23 – which was thought defeated after a previous rebellion in 2012 – has now captured a large swathe of territory in the east and is encircling Goma. The group is backed by neighbouring Rwanda and claims to represent the interests of Congolese Tutsis.

Scroll through Bashizi’s photos to hear directly from those affected by the conflict. And for more context, read our recently published pieces on disinformation during the war, on the roots of the M23 rebellion, and on the many other DRC insurgencies that demand attention.

Christiane Mukankusi Bashoboye: ‘I just want to return home to cultivate’

I am 52 years old, and I have eight children though I live with six. I have been living here for three and a half weeks. I come from Kilolirwe, and since I have been here life has been very difficult. Since my arrival nothing has worked. It is difficult to find things to feed the children, especially for us who have recently arrived here. In my village, I grew potatoes, beans, sweet potatoes, and I also raised sheep. We lacked nothing, but here everything is different. I had to leave my livestock to flee. We heard bombs everywhere. I remember looking for somebody to give me even 1,000 francs [$0.5] per sheep but I didn't find anyone. In normal times, a sheep costs $40-60 – what a waste. To survive here, I send my children to search for wood, and we sell it on. My husband also goes to look for work in the sand quarries not far from here, but despite this, life is still difficult. We need water and food. My big wish is for the government to bring peace. I just want to return home to cultivate. It has been a very long time since there was a war in my village. It's all new for me to live in such conditions, under a small tarpaulin with so many children. We just want peace.

Alice Maombi: ‘It is difficult to find food here’

I am 25 years old and a mother of three children. We walked from Kitchanga until we arrived here in Bulengo following the war that broke out in my village. I miss farming. The problem we have here is food and latrines. It is difficult to find food here. To have food, sometimes I go very early in the morning to the park to cut wood. It exposes us, given the insecurity [in the park], but we have no other choice to survive. We have water, although it's far from the block where I am staying. I was a cassava and bean farmer in my village. All I can ask our authorities is to bring peace to our home.

Pacifique Iradukunda: ‘I want to return home to resume the life I led before, taking care of those who are dear to me’

I come from Kalenga. I am 31 years old, and my family have been living in this camp for almost a month. We fled our village of Kitchanga because of the M23 rebel war. Here, life is difficult, because we are all waiting for food, and in the end not everyone has access to it. I am lucky to have had this token [for food aid]... we will have enough to eat for a few days. I want to return home to resume the life I led before, taking care of those who are dear to me. I was a biker and I earned my living like that.

A group of women queue in line to register for food assistance at Bulengo displacement camp on the outskirts of the eastern Congolese city of Goma.
Arlette Bashizi/TNH
Displaced women and children fill up water from a pump on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma. They are among more than 600,000 people that have fled an offensive by the M23 armed group.
Arlette Bashizi/TNH


Rosette Riziki Rutare: ‘I wanted to come with this machine so as not to start begging’

I am 32 years old and I am from Sake. My husband, my six children, and I walked from Sake to get here. There was shooting everywhere and we could hear bombs from afar, so we just took some clothes, some utensils, and we left. My husband took this sewing machine with him but we forgot the pedal in the rush. The next day, when we returned to pick it up, there was shooting everywhere. We almost died that day. I wanted to come with this machine so as not to start begging. When I arrived here, I hoped to be able to earn a little money to feed my family, but life is very difficult here. The customers, who are also displaced, do not have the means to buy clothes or have them sewn. They pay sometimes 50-200 francs, whereas at home in Sake sometimes I had orders of 5,000-7,000 francs. My husband goes to look for odd jobs in the city of Goma but he doesn't often find any. When he finds, we eat. The aid is not sufficient because there are a lot of displaced people. Only the old ones receive food, but for us, the new ones, there is no food and no toilets nearby. We suffer a lot here, but it's better because we at least sleep in peace. We need to return home – this is the lasting help that we can receive from leaders.

Bora Bahati Willy: ‘I am asking the government to restore the peace in our villages so that we can resume our former lives’

I am originally from Kitchanga. I am married and a father of three children. We fled our village because of the M23 war. At home, I was a tradesman and motorbike driver. I had an accident with the motorbike, and a few weeks after the war broke out it was difficult to walk here with the children, but we were able to arrive. I received a lift on the way and that's how I ended up here. Life is difficult, but here it's a bit [better] because we don't hear bombs anymore – we are not afraid to die. The big challenges we have here are the lack of toilets, and there is not enough water for everyone given the number of people. I already received food once, but it's already finished. As soon as we arrived here, we started this small business that helps us to survive. Otherwise, it was going to be very difficult, especially as I still suffer [from] the accident. Even if we received help here, until we get back home it will still be a big problem to help us all with food, water, and everything that is essential. That is why I am asking the government to restore the peace in our villages so that we can return there and resume our former lives.

A crowd of people stand among makeshift shelters in Bulengo displacement camp. The site opened in January and now houses more than 120,000 people.
Arlette Bashizi/TNH
A crowd forms at a displacement camp for Congolese displaced by the M23 conflict. Nearly a million people have been uprooted by the fighting since late 2021.
Bora Bahati Willy stands on a crutch among makeshift shelters in Bulengo displacement camp. He was recently involved in a motorbike accident which made fleeing a M23 attack even harder.
Arlette Bashizi/TNH

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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