Congo Crisis: a 10-year-old's ordeal of flight and separation

Telling the Human Story, 27 November 2012

© UNHCR/F.Noy
Sukuru is longing to go back to school, which has been closed since the fighting began in mid-November. Here he is earlier this year flanked by two of his schoolmates in Mugunga III camp.

MUGUNGA III, Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 27 (UNHCR) Losing a child is every parent's nightmare. The ordeal for Baseme and Eugenie was all the worse because they were separated for a few days from their 10-year-old son, Sukuru, in the middle of a combat zone, with bullets whizzing all around them and people fleeing for their lives.

That was six months ago, but over the last two weeks it must have seemed like déjà vu as fighting erupted once more in eastern Congo's North Kivu province between government forces and the rebel M23 movement. The combat forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, many of them seeking shelter in Mugunga III camp, where Sukuru and his family now live.

UNHCR interviewed them at the end of October before the rebel advance and capture on November 20 of the provincial capital, Goma, which led to aid agencies withdrawing non-essential staff to Rwanda and raised fears about the situation of thousands of internally displaced people in Mugunga III.

The situation remains very tense in North Kivu and neighbouring South Kivu, so a UNHCR staff member was relieved to catch up with Eugenie last weekend during the first food distribution in Mugunga III in several days. The family was doing well, despite the uncertainty, and had moved out of a communal tent and into a home built with UNHCR-funded materials. But the camp school had closed.

During the earlier meeting with Sukuru, it was difficult to imagine the despair that the bubbly boy must have suffered after losing his family during an attack on their village, located some 20 kilometres north-west of Mugunga III in North Kivu's Masisi territory.

After a relatively peaceful four years, heavy fighting had erupted in late April between government forces and the M23, which groups disgruntled army defectors. This and subsequent waves of violence and general lawlessness had by October displaced more than 220,000 people in North Kivu.

The first wave of fighting came in Masisi and forced Sukuru, his parents, three younger siblings and their neighbours to flee. "There was gunfire everywhere," the boy said in Mugunga. "We were in a panic, gunshots came from everywhere," added his 31-year-old father. Baseme said Sukuru, his oldest child, got lost in the mayhem as they fled. "When you see your neighbours lying on the ground dead, you panic," he stressed.

Children, women, the elderly and people living with disabilities are particularly vulnerable during flight and they are a big protection concern for UNHCR in volatile situations like the Congo, where displacement almost becomes a way of life. Sukuru and his parents, for example, also had to flee in 2008. Many of those on the run this past fortnight have been uprooted multiple times and they include many children separated from their families.

"I had old shoes and I could not follow," recalled Sukuru. He was terrified, but the survival instinct kicked in and he followed the flow of people fleeing the village. "I was running without seeing where I was going. I was just following the crowd. I could not stop crying because I had lost my parents."

It was an emotional time for his parents too. Once the fighting had died down, Baseme returned to the village but could find no trace of Sukuru. The boy was on the road heading towards Goma.

"On the first night, I slept under a tree by the roadside," said Sukuru, who was hungry, missing his parents and desperately lonely, despite being surrounded by hundreds of people when he reached Goma. "There were other mothers around me but they were too busy looking after their own children and belongings. They could not look after me."

His parents had already joined thousands of other newly arrived displaced civilians in Mugunga III, where they met a nurse who remembered them from 2008. She had by chance spotted Sukuru in Goma and told Baseme. "When my dad found me, I was so tired that he had to carry me on his back until we reached Mugunga camp," Sukuru recalled.

When UNHCR met Sukuru, he seemed to have moved on from the trauma of his solo trek to safety. But the fresh instability in eastern North Kivu has clouded the future and halted normal services in the camps. UNHCR and its partners are working hard to resume assistance and basic services as soon as security permits.

Sukuru had relished school and been positive about the future. "I want to be a good educator, a good teacher so that students understand their lessons," he had told UNHCR before heading off to school, with notebook under his arm and the volcanic hills of North Kivu as a spectacular backdrop.

But despite the latest setbacks and the trauma of life for civilians in eastern Congo, mother and son remain hopeful that he will be able to resume his education. This is also a priority for UNHCR.

The violence, meanwhile, has also prevented his father and others from seeking daily work in Goma to help make their families self-sufficient.

Concerned about the most vulnerable, like Sukuru and his relatives, and its ability to help them, UNHCR has called on all armed groups to ensure the safety of civilians. "UNHCR urges all parties to take steps to protect civilians and prevent indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on them," Stefano Severe, UNHCR's regional representative, said last week. He also urged that the IDP camps be protected and their civilian nature respected.

By Céline Schmitt in Mugunga III, Democratic Republic of the Congo

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Uncertain future for displaced family in eastern Congo camp

Barely six months after heavy fighting erupted in late April in eastern Congo's North Kivu province, the rebel M23 movement of army defectors captured the provincial capital of Goma from government forces. The rebel advance caused tens of thousands to flee their homes, adding to the more than 220,000 civilians displaced in the province during the earlier waves of violence and lawlessness since April. Ten-year-old Sukuru and his family were in Mugunga III camp for the internally displaced when Goma fell on November 20, having fled their home in North Kivu's Masisi territory months before.

They have suffered multiple displacement in the past, but are currently relatively safe in Mugunga III though in need of aid. Their ordeal of flight is similar to that suffered by many others, though in the haste to flee their village earlier this year, Sukuru became separated from his parents for a few days. UNHCR followed their lives in Mugunga III. Despite the latest setbacks, Sukuru remains hopeful about the future.

Uncertain future for displaced family in eastern Congo camp

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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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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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