Hana Clemens

Camps are filled with families. Sifa Bitasimwa sits with her daughters Naomi, 13, and Rita, 1, in front of an unfinished temporary structure in Mubimbi camp. New families often arrive, while others have lived here for years. Bitasimwa came to Mubimbi three years ago.

In eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1.5 million people have been forced from home by violence and conflict. MCC’s program directors reflect on the suffering and perseverance they’ve seen there.

“Jesus is light.” When MCC U.S. program director Ruth Keidel Clemens saw the words printed in French and local Congolese languages on Rukimba Furaha’s blouse, she recognized the fabric immediately.

It is what Protestant churchwomen throughout the Democratic Republic of the Congo use for choir uniforms and outfits for special church days, as well as for everyday use.

Rukimba FurahaRukimba Furaha Photo by Hana Clemens

And the blouse made from this fabric was among the few possessions that Furaha was able to bring with her when she and her eight children, the oldest of whom is 10, fled home, joining other community members to walk almost 40 miles to safety.

For nearly two decades, local and regional militias and rebel groups have threatened remote areas of eastern Congo’s North and South Kivu provinces, taking control of villages, attacking people and forcing whole communities to flee for their lives.

“These are just some of the visible signs of this neglected conflict that continues to uproot and kill thousands of people in eastern Congo.”

In a dusty schoolyard near the city of Goma, where about 100 families were sleeping in a handful of classrooms, Furaha met with Clemens and other MCC representatives who visited in summer 2012 along with emergency services staff of partner organization the Church of Christ in Congo or Eglise du Christ au Congo (ECC).

A week after fleeing, Furaha recounted how she and her children waited as an armed group approached, hoping to stay long enough for the crops nearly ripe in her fields to be ready for harvest. In the end, she left without them, losing her family’s food as well as her home.

“These are just some of the visible signs of this neglected conflict that continues to uproot and kill thousands of people in eastern Congo,” Clemens says.

Even as families such as Furaha’s are affected, Christians are reaching out, ministering through the ECC and through individuals and congregations sharing what they can with their neighbors and newcomers.

A congregation that Clemens visited, Katoyi Free Methodist Church, opened its property and its primary school to provide temporary shelter and assistance to more than 300 families who had fled home, including some who moved to Katoyi from the school where Clemens met Furaha. MCC supports these efforts, providing emergency assistance such as additional food, household items and health care for those sheltering at the site, and paying to refill the cisterns so that displaced families would continue to have a source of clean water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Elsewhere in eastern Congo, MCC is providing $275,000 for food, seeds and tools for displaced families and their local hosts in Masisi and Mwenga. MCC’s Global Family education program supports three schools as they welcome more than 300 students from camps for displaced people in Shasha and Mubimbi.

schoolMCC’s Global Family education program helps Ruchunda Primary School welcome students from nearby Mubimbi camp. Photo by Tim Lind

But as the displacement continues, MCC Congo and MCC’s advocacy offices also call on people to learn more about the root causes of the conflict, the roles foreign governments and multinational corporations play and the immensity of the suffering.

Eastern Congo is rarely seen in newspaper headlines, flashing across TV screens or topping Internet news listings.

Yet conflict there is taking a staggering toll.

Crops, homes, communities, schools and health facilities are destroyed and lives are lost as local militia, armed ethnic coalitions, Rwandan rebel groups and the national Congolese army fight to control land, exploit mineral resources and settle local and ethnic scores.

studentChance Nakamuke and her mother Jacquie Yalala Kibiriti live in Mubimbi camp. MCC’s Global Family education program supports local schools, helping them give displaced students an opportunity to continue studying despite being forced from home. Photo by Hana Clemens

Currently, more than 2 million people in Congo are internally displaced, forced to seek shelter elsewhere in the country. Most of these, around 1.5 million, are in the east. In addition to those killed in the violence, many more people perish from easily preventable diseases such as malaria, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses. Dramatic increases in the incidence of rape in the wake of social and community destruction bring the suffering to almost unimaginable levels.

The motives driving the violence are complex, tied deep into the histories of Congo, Rwanda and surrounding nations, competition for land, local politics, the policies of foreign governments and the drive to control regions rich in minerals, including those essential to cell phones and computers.

Even the fighting is complicated. The armed groups are so numerous and ever-changing that Clemens, who grew up in Congo and served a term there with MCC, kept a running list of them in her notes from the trip. They frequently change alliances, occupy and abandon territory and splinter into new factions.

What is clear is the suffering — and how long people have been forced to endure it.

In 2008, Willie Reimer, MCC Canada program director, visited the region, including one of the same camps for displaced people that Clemens visited in 2012. In place after place, he listened to stories of people forced from their homes by armed groups, whole communities that planted but could not harvest.

Then serving as MCC’s director of food, disaster and material resources, Reimer had visited MCC projects around the world that reach out to people forced from home.

The situation is different in eastern Congo, Reimer stresses. Unlike families losing a home once to a disaster, people are being forced from home again and again.

Working with childrenFidele Kyanza visits with children in a camp for displaced people in North Kivu province. Photo by Tim Lind

Many lose everything, then return and work to rebuild their lives — only to be forced to flee again as another armed group, or sometimes the same one, invades their community.

In the midst of tragedy, though, Reimer also was struck by the perseverance of the people of the church in reaching out to their neighbors.

It’s a strength that for Clemens echoes what her father, Levi Keidel, learned as he, along with his spouse Eudene and their young children, worked in Congo in the early 1960s, with what is now Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. It was a turbulent time when other armed groups swept through the countryside. 

“My father used to describe his Congolese colleagues as being like young trees,” Clemens says. “They bend way over in the wind as if they could snap, and yet they continue to stand strong.”

That strength is at work today, not only in the people Clemens met in camps for internally displaced people, but also at Katoyi Free Methodist Church.

In a region where resources already are strained by poverty, members gladly shared clothing and food such as beans and potatoes with the displaced families. Church leaders are providing a building with three rooms that can be used as a health center, says Fidele Kyanza, a church member and director of the ECC ministry that assists displaced people.

And the congregation is welcoming newcomers into church life, inviting them into choirs and to join morning prayers. Children from the church and from the displaced families play together.

When people began to arrive, it was clear the congregation would respond. “They are people in need, and we’re the church,” Kyanza says.

That dedication is something Clemens carries in her heart even months after her visit. “It’s amazing,” Clemens says. “These are not wealthy people, but people who are showing their compassion as Christians. They’re following Christ’s call to reach out to those in need.”