Thousands have fled from Northern Kivu to escape renewed fighting between the Congolese army and rebels. This adds to an estimated two million displaced peoples in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jacques Bategera is one of many refugees who has lived in camps for years. He awaits the day he can return home. But until then, he won't stop helping fellow exiles.
By Melanie Gouby, Goma
Mugunga lies outside Goma, the capital of North Kivu. Jacques is among the camp’s earliest inhabitants, so he can appreciate the population’s recent influx, soaring from 2,600 to 12,000.
“Since the fighting began on 29 April, the camp has welcomed many people from the Masisi and Rutshuru regions,” says Jacques. “There is open space, but not enough tents to host them. The food supplies sent by the government were not enough and the people are hungry.”
Before coming to Mugunga, Jacques worked as a farmer and a security officer in Masisi. His experience is put to good use today, serving as a liaison between the population and the police. He is in charge of security for sector 3 of the camp. He also assisted police commander Bernard Bahiti in setting up a security system with “local chiefs” who are responsible for groups of 20 to 30 people.
“I volunteered to help the weak and vulnerable, and I like this position,” says Jacques.
“With all the new arrivals and the resulting overcrowding, we had to double the number of police officers from ten to twenty. Security threats often come from outside the camp. There was recently a rape incident involving Congolese soldiers,” says Jacques.
Captain Bahiti expounds on this. “The current insecurity facilitates this type of attack. Civilian populations, especially refugees, are often an easy target for soldiers of the rebellion or the Congolese army.”
On 4 May, Mugunga camp was attacked by unidentified soldiers, leaving one civilian injured and forcing the people to flee once again. The soldiers took food supplies intended for the refugees.
For four years, Jacques has been waiting for the day he gets to return to his village, Masisi-Mweso. “I am Hutu and, with the CNDP controlling the region, it was a bit complicated,” he explains.
The CNDP, which is officially committed to defending the interests of the Tutsi population in eastern DRC, was integrated into the Congolese army (FARDC) in 2009, following an agreement with the Congolese government.
Bosco Ntaganda, one of the movement’s leaders, was promoted to FARDC general. Last April, rumours of an imminent high-profile arrest following a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court reportedly forced him to desert the army. Along with his many loyal soldiers, he reportedly retreated into his Masisi stronghold.
To complement what are otherwise insufficient provisions, Jacques also works as an assistant bricklayer for private contractors near the camp. His wife makes mandale, a traditional alcoholic drink she sells at the local market.
“Every month, we have to make do while waiting for the aid. The situation is extremely hard for the new refugees; we urgently need assistance,” he says.
In the past week, peace has slowly returned to the Masisi region, as the Congolese army managed to force Ntaganda and his soldiers into retreat.
The influx of refugees into Mugunga has stopped, although thousands are arriving in Goma and Rwanda from the Rutshuru province, where fighting is now ensuing.
For Jacques, the departure of former CNDP soldiers from Masisi means he might soon be able to leave. “I want to go back home, to my farm and my house,” he says. “But we have to wait because the fighting could return just as fast. We can only hope it doesn’t.”