Some Congolese start returning home amid fluid situation in east Congo

News Stories, 22 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
A view of Mugunga III camp, to the west of Goma, which was captured earlier this week by the M23.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 22 (UNHCR) Two days after rebel fighters seized a provincial capital from government forces, hundreds of civilians have been leaving a camp for the internally displaced and returning to their homes in a former battle zone in eastern Congo.

"I saw it myself today in Mugunga III [camp|," said UNHCR's Kouassi Lazare Etien, referring to a camp located on the outskirts of Goma, capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province. "Now the fighting has stopped [in their native Rutshuru territory some 30 kilometres to the north], they want to go home. . . nobody's forcing them," he added.

But he said they were also being driven by the interruption of assistance caused by the security situation, while stressing that North and South Kivu provinces remain very unstable and fluid. UNHCR staff said heavy gunfire could be heard coming from North Kivu's Sake area on Thursday afternoon, which fell to the rebels on Wednesday. Displaced people were said to be heading towards Goma some 20 kilometres away.

Etien heads the refugee agency's office in Goma and has remained in place throughout the crisis, including the moment it was seized by the rebel M23 movement on Tuesday. He noted that the population of Mugunga III and other camps, such as Mugunga I and Lac Vert, had been increased by people fleeing the fighting, including more than 30,000 from Kanyaruchinya to the north of Goma. But their situation has become more and more difficult.

"Over the last three or four days, because of the crisis, no humanitarian actors were able to go to the camp, therefore the IDPs who left Kanyaruchinya for Mugunga did not receive any assistance," he said, adding that since Wednesday many had started heading back to their homes in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu.

"Now that the M23 has taken Goma, they think Rutshuru territory is safe enough for them to go back, and also because of their predicament in the IDP camps, where they are not receiving full-scale assistance," he noted. UNHCR and many other humanitarian organizations withdrew non-essential staff to Rwanda earlier this week.

Etien, who visited Mugunga to try and assess needs, said he hoped that the authorities and aid agencies, including World Food Programme, would be able to provide two or three days of food rations to those returning home to help build up their strength for the journey

"We want to start helping," Etien said, citing transportation for the most vulnerable returnees, once the security situation allowed it. UNHCR and its key partners, UNICEF and the WFP, are working together to try and ensure aid can resume. Some aid has been given to the neediest.

But Etien said people who had fled their homes in Masisi territory, when the fighting between the government and M23 first erupted in April, were not returning. He said their plight was an "urgent" issue for UNHCR.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR official said the situation in Goma appeared to be returning to normal, with shops opening and lots of motos on the road, a sure sign of normality. "We can see people roaming town without any problem," Etien said.

But the general situation in the east and across the country is tense and uncertain. At a public meeting in Goma on Wednesday, an M23 spokesman said the next objective was Bukavu, capital of South Kivu province, which has also been plagued by violence and displacement.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that there are more than 1.6 million internally displaced people in North and South Kivu, including 285,000 newly displaced between July and September.

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UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

As a massive food distribution gets underway in six UNHCR-run camps for tens of thousands of internally displaced Congolese in North Kivu, the UN refugee agency continues to hand out desperately needed shelter and household items.

A four-truck UNHCR convoy carrying 33 tonnes of various aid items, including plastic sheeting, blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans crossed Wednesday from Rwanda into Goma, the capital of the conflict-hit province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The aid, from regional emergency stockpiles in Tanzania, was scheduled for immediate distribution. The supplies arrived in Goma as the World Food Programme (WFP), with assistance from UNHCR, began distributing food to some 135,000 displaced people in the six camps run by the refugee agency near Goma.

More than 250,000 people have been displaced since the fighting resumed in August in North Kivu. Estimates are that there are now more than 1.3 million displaced people in this province alone.

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UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

Since 2006, renewed conflict and general insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes – the country's worst displacement crisis since the formal end of the civil war in 2003. In total, there are now some 800,000 people displaced in the province, including those uprooted by previous conflicts.

Hope for the future was raised in January 2008 when the DRC government and rival armed factions signed a peace accord. But the situation remains tense in North Kivu and tens of thousands of people still need help. UNHCR has opened sites for internally displaced people (IDPs) and distributed assistance such as blankets, plastic sheets, soap, jerry cans, firewood and other items to the four camps in the region. Relief items have also been delivered to some of the makeshift sites that have sprung up.

UNHCR staff have been engaged in protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs and other populations at risk across North Kivu.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

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UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

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Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

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