The crisis of displaced persons in eastern DR Congo is giving life to new forms of solidarity

The crisis of displaced persons in eastern DR Congo is giving life to new forms of solidarity

In March 2022, war broke out in the territory of Rutshuru, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), following attacks by rebels from the armed group M23. Tens of thousands of families from rural areas in the north of the province have since sought refuge in camps set up near the provincial capital, Goma, in the hope of finding safety and a means of survival.

Thierry Gasisiro, secretary of the civil society organisation in Nyiragongo territory, located to the south of Rutshuru has been involved since the first arrivals of these internally displaced persons (IDPs). “These people had nothing but the clothes on their backs. In their rush to flee, many left without mattresses to sleep on, saucepans to cook with, without food […]. Our fellow citizens were in extreme need, so we had to act,” he explains. According to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a total of more than 784,000 people fled their homes in North Kivu between March 2022 and May 2023.

The DR Congo is no stranger to such widespread displacement. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are close to six million internal refugees in the country. This crisis of displaced persons is a chronic challenge for the east of the country in particular, which has seen constant population movements for almost 30 years, ever since the former génocidaires of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda fled to the region with all their belongings.

Eastern DR Congo has since suffered from successive waves of warfare, which have created one of the world’s most serious humanitarian crises and potentially claimed millions of lives, though no official figures exist. There have also been widespread reports of sexual violence used as a weapon of war, a phenomenon highlighted by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to gynaecologist Denis Mukwege. Another result of the war, the local population has been unable to benefit from the income generated by the precious minerals in its subsoil. In fact, it is generally accepted that the lucrative mineral trade sustains the ongoing violence.

As the crisis of displaced persons becomes increasingly protracted, the local population has accused the Congolese government of failing to put in place solutions to meet their needs. During the last mass displacement of people in North Kivu, caused by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in May 2021, more than 500,000 people found themselves completely abandoned, forced to settle in areas without running water or sanitary facilities, which raised fears of a cholera outbreak.

Initiatives being taken at the local level

The Congolese government’s lack of preparation in the face of months of renewed assaults by M23, an armed rebel group allegedly supported by neighbouring Rwanda, has angered the local population. But far from giving up, local civil society has responded by taking action, building its own structures and inventing new forms of solidarity. “Our brothers and sisters lost everything when they fled the war. We have to help them, especially with their most basic need, food,” Josué Mutanava, an activist with the Goma Actif movement, tells Equal Times.

Every Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, Mutanava works as a volunteer in the Kanyaruchinya camp for displaced people on the northern outskirts of Goma. During their visits, the young people from the organisation prepare meals using food collected from the local population and internationally via crowdfunding platforms. They also organise recreational activities aimed at healing or alleviating, to the extent possible, the trauma that those displaced by the war have suffered. “We’ve been here since the first people arrived,” says Mutanava, as he prepares to serve a pot of porridge. “There was nobody before us. Our government is always absent at times like these, when people need it the most”.

The Goma Actif solidarity collective was formed during previous crises when the state’s absence was felt. “During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, we quickly realised that very little was being done in terms of prevention, or to help those most affected by the economic impact of the health restrictions. So we mobilised to meet urgent needs, in particular by raising awareness of barrier measures and distributing masks,” continues Mutanava. “The only financial resources we can rely on are our membership fees and fundraising via social networks. But when the state is unable to fulfil its public service missions and the NGOs are also absent, we use all our available resources to respond to the most urgent needs”.

Criticism of NGOs and international institutions

Numerous NGOs and UN institutions have been active in the country since the mass population movements of the late 1990s. They have been deployed to areas where the state is unable to meet the needs of its population. Their work, however, is the subject of much criticism. “When the displaced people arrived, the government had no plan to receive them. We turned to NGOs for help but they said they had no budget for this unforeseen situation,” says Gasisiro.

The civil society organisation in Nyiragongo territory criticises these organisations for preferring to maintain their current programmes rather than participate in the emergency response. “The displaced people have demonstrated on several occasions to express the very real needs they face. But nothing has been done to improve their situation,” says the organisation through its spokesperson.

The World Food Programme, a UN agency, has also been criticised for its “insufficient response” in the early days of the crisis. Without responding directly to these accusations, the agency explained that it reacted according to its means. “We took part in the concerted effort to help the affected populations. Our team was operational in the critical hours and days following the arrival of the displaced persons,” says Wilfred Nkwambi, head of the WFP office in Goma. “Our assistance increased from 500,000 beneficiaries in the first half of 2023 to 1.2 million in July. The WFP could have helped more people in need if it had had the necessary resources.” There have been several appeals to increase the funds available to meet the needs of local communities. The inadequate response to the scale of humanitarian needs has reinforced already widespread mistrust of all international organisations.

Numerous local voices are calling for ‘humanitarian localisation,’ meaning that humanitarian action should be carried out by local rather than international organisations.

“There is a trend of increasingly fierce criticism of NGOs,” says Bob Kabamba, an expert in DR Congo and professor of political science at the University of Liège in Belgium specialising in development issues. “This anger is fuelled by the disillusionment felt by a number of Congolese. Many would like to find employment with one of these organisations, which are perceived to be well funded, but there aren’t jobs for everyone.”

Whether real or imagined, the supposed wealth of international organisations is fuelling very real anger. There have been regular demonstrations, some which have turned deadly, demanding the departure of all foreign organisations, from NGOs to the United Nations force deployed in the country to restore peace. The Congolese population has criticised the government for its passivity, both in the face of the M23 and the other rebel groups active in the country.

Petna Ndaliko Katondolo, a teacher at the Yole!Africa cultural centre in Goma and a communication specialist, partially blames the NGOs for this resentment. “The general perception among the population is that, instead of alleviating real suffering and strengthening the community, which is the stated aim of international solidarity, NGO policy creates a relationship of subjugation. At the same time, promises of emancipation and empowerment are slow to materialise. This is a breach of the social contract that binds NGOs to the population,” he tells Equal Times.

Katondolo highlights the gap between the international community’s perception of the situation in DR Congo and the reality on the ground. “In stark contrast to the clichés inherited from colonial representation, the Congolese people are taking matters into their own hands. While their actions are having a real impact and people appreciate them for responding to their actual needs, they are not officially recognised for the work they do and thus do not receive Western funding, which uses a different set of standards and indicators.”

According to Katondolo, “this mobilisation shows the community’s ability to reinvent collective action based on its concrete needs. It imagines solutions and implements them, moving from critical theory to constructive action”.

A new form of political action before the 20 December elections

According to Phidias Senge-Milemba, a political scientist at the University of Goma, the social mobilisation that is taking place represents a growing call for better organisation of solidarity in the country. “It’s a new way of doing politics. The state is not fulfilling its role, so the community is organising itself,” he says.

“Many young people are getting involved in movements and mobilisation is intensifying. This is a clear indication of the scale of expectations. In addition to the citizens’ movements that have emerged in recent years, such as Lucha and Filimbi, groups are forming to address other needs, such as the lack of social health protection.

Kabamba of the University of Liège is not surprised by this growing enthusiasm for different forms of involvement in public life. “Joining a citizens’ movement seems to be the most effective way of making demands and serving your fellow citizens. Many citizens no longer have confidence in political parties, because there are no longer any parties as such. Instead, they are family businesses set up to gain access to the country’s wealth and to lucrative positions,” he laments [editor’s note: according to some deputies, the salary of a national deputy is US$21,000 a month, but the National Assembly refuses to reveal the official amount].

One of the challenges of this new wave of social engagement will be access to positions of responsibility. As Senge-Milemba sees it, these activists will have to get involved at all levels of government, from the local to the provincial and national levels, in order to bring about lasting change.

A number of activists have put themselves forward as candidates for the 20 December elections (presidential, legislative and provincial), within various parties and political platforms. However, this trend has sowed some doubts among the population. “Political engagement is important but it’s essential that former activists from citizens’ movements who take up positions of responsibility are well trained and have irreproachable integrity, so that people don’t suspect these movements of simply being a springboard to a political career along the lines of what we’ve seen for decades,” concludes Senge-Milemba.

This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin