During U.S. Thanksgiving week, more than 250,000 people in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo were displaced from their homes and camps as rebel group M23 took control of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu.
Many of the displaced people were moving for the second or third time, having already been forced from their homes and villages earlier in the year as M23 fought Congolese troops and terrorized villages on its way toward Goma.
These displaced people are among the latest to join the 1.5 million people in eastern Congo who have been forced from their homes by decades of fighting among many different local and regional armed groups.
The casualties are the civilians, said Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) worker Michael J. Sharp, who was in Goma during the time of the takeover. Sharp is from Goshen, Ind.
“It’s not just this displacement,” Sharp said. “These are very vulnerable people who were already displaced multiple times. People are pushed further and further away from their homes and are increasingly vulnerable. You can only get run down so many times, until you can’t survive anymore.”
For example, Sharp said, M23 emptied the Kanyaruchinya camp, about six miles north of the city, of its estimated 70,000 people who had already been uprooted from their homes. Many of them followed the main road south toward Goma, seeking shelter in the city or continuing on the main road west of Goma to camps for internally displaced people (IDP) close to the town of Sake.
However, when M23 overtook Goma, the exodus of displaced people continued, including 345 families from North Kivu who had taken refuge at a school near Goma in the fall. MCC had provided them with basic food and household supplies. The exodus led many to Sake, only to be chased back to Goma, when M23 engaged the Congolese army in heavy fire there.
“Even though Goma was an area of fighting, once it calmed down, some people went there. People know it’s a hub for international organizations,” Sharp said.
Sixteen Protestant denominations in Goma are working together to respond to the needs of as many displaced people in the city as it can. They will provide food, water, and basic household supplies to about 750 families and provide spaces for the families to stay. MCC is supporting their work through long-time partner, the Church of Christ in Congo (ECC), an umbrella organization for more than 60 Protestant denominations in Congo.
Already this year, MCC has contributed $128,000 of locally purchased food and material aid for ECC projects that impact displaced people. In addition, through Canadian Foodgrains Bank, MCC provided $393,087 for food, seeds and tools to support families in North and South Kivu who are hosting displaced people.
ECC also is calling on people in Europe and the West to advocate with their governments on behalf of Congo, including refusing to give any military aid to Rwanda, a neighboring country that is linked to various armed groups in Congo including M23, Sharp said. Uganda, too, is suspected of aiding M23.
While Tim Lind, MCC representative in Congo with his spouse Suzanne, agrees with the ECC’s call for advocacy, he said the problem is not just neighboring countries. The Linds are from Three Rivers, Mich., and live in Kinshasa-Gombe.
“The Congolese government has been unable to maintain and establish basic infrastructure in areas such as justice, order, health care, education, and transportation,” he said. “This vacuum has encouraged multiple local militias, armed ethnic coalitions, Rwandan rebel groups and the national Congolese army to fight to control agricultural land, exploit mineral resources and settle local and ethnic scores.”
In the process, Suzanne Lind said, civilians in Congo suffer because “they are constantly chased around or pillaged.” She is especially concerned for the wellbeing of displaced people who can’t find families to take them in or who try to survive in camps.
“It’s a constant battle to stay dry, to stay warm, to find food and to find water. Babies are being born, and little children are getting sick. Women worry about sexual violence and about protecting their children from danger. And they are afraid. They don’t know from day to day if they’re going to have to pick up everything and walk again or if somebody’s going to be fighting wherever they are,” Lind said.
“Political and social issues will continue to be complicated and difficult in eastern Congo,” she said, “but churches struggle on. We are glad that we can provide some encouragement and resources as they work to care for uprooted people and to relieve some of the suffering in this region.”