By Fredrick Nzwili | Catholic News Service
NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — In the midst of war in eastern Congo, churches have opened their doors to fleeing populations, as the frequent clashes keep people in endless cycle of movement.
Catholic Relief Services — the humanitarian agency of Catholics in the United States — is helping thousands of displaced people in North Kivu province.
“Many of these families are now living in schools or churches or with host families,” Dr. Ghislain Mukuna, the CRS health program manager who is overseeing the agency’s emergency response in North Kivu, told Catholic News Service. “The deteriorating security situation” is affecting people’s activity and livelihoods.
Mukuna said the major movement of displaced people started March 28 during fighting between the March 23 Movement and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Churches and schools have been turned into makeshift camps. In Nyiragongo, people displaced from the war have added to those who remain displaced from the May 2021 volcanic eruption.
Multiple police forces, including a U.N. peacekeeping mission, are protecting the camps, but at any hint that the M23 militia groups are advancing, the displaced people are being forced to move to new locations.
“The humanitarian situation across the eastern provinces has deteriorated, and the overall numbers of the people displaced this year has risen to some 700,000,” Bintou Keita, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Congo, said June 29. She explained that should the M23 militia continue with its coordinated attacks, the U.N. mission may find itself confronted with a situation beyond its capabilities.
Mukuna said the makeshift camps are overcrowded and lack almost all the basic services. As the needs grow each day due to continued fighting, the camps’ displaced occupants urgently need food, clean water and sanitation, apart from safe and dignified housing, latrines and medical services.
“Often fleeing their homes with little to no belongings, the people are in need of clothing, cooking utensils, bedding, soap and other basic necessities,” said Mukuna.
In Rutshuru area, CRS is working with the Goma diocesan branch of Caritas Congo to provide safe and improved shelter for more than 2,000 displaced households. This includes clean water, sanitation and hygiene for those displaced.
“There are fears of cholera outbreak if adequate water supplies do not arrive soon,” said Mukuna.
In June, Ugandan authorities closed the Bunagana border crossing, an important entry point for traders delivering supplies markets in North Kivu.
“Supplies are now only available through a prolonged transit from Uganda to Rwanda before returning to DRC. This has an impact on costs and delivery times,” explained Mukuna.
On the global front, the crisis in Ukraine is dwarfing the intensifying crisis in eastern Congo, so Mukuna said the humanitarian situation in the African country is getting limited attention and funding.
“It is possible that the lack of global attention will lead to an unchecked escalation in the region,” he said.
Meanwhile, given the volatile and ever-changing situation in eastern DRC, how soon peace returns to allow these people to move back to their villages or homes remains hard to predict.
Congo’s Catholic bishops frequently have stated that lasting peace is the key prerequisite for the return of displaced population to their homes and the restarting of development efforts in the region. Many had hoped Pope Francis’ early July visit to eastern Congo would help peace efforts, but the pope was forced to postpone the trip due to problems with his knee.