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Democratic Republic of Congo: between tensions and a desire to re-begin
12 February 2013

A displaced woman in Nzulu, one of many IDP camps formed since last November in the surrounding area of Goma, a strategic city in eastern Congo (JRS/Danilo Giannese)
Bujumbura, 12 February 2013 – Nearly three months after the crisis, in which the March 23 Movement (M23) occupied Goma for 12 days in a mineral rich region in eastern Congo, the North Kivu capital continues to be marked by uncertainty and danger. The rebels are based at the entrance of the city and tens of thousands of displaced persons are living in camps near the city centre. Meanwhile, negotiations between the Congolese government and M23 rebels are taking place in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

JRS Great Lakes Africa Director, Isaac Kiyaka SJ, speaks about the situation in Goma after he returned from a visit to eastern Congo over the Christmas period. 

Fr Kiyaka, how did you find Goma in the aftermath of the crisis triggered by the M23 rebels?
Even though the rebels have accepted to withdraw a few kilometres from Goma, the climate continues to be marked by a profound sense of insecurity. People are convinced that the M23 rebels will continue to roam the city monitoring the situation. On the other hand the tense climate is evident from the massive presence of Congolese military and UN peacekeepers. One of the images that struck me most was seeing a tank pass by where children were playing.

What is the prevailing mood among the local population?
People live in constant fear that a new conflict will break out at any moment. For the inhabitants of Goma, the future is uncertain, unforeseeable, dark. However these people are very strong and have an admirable capacity to get on with things regardless. Businesses re-opened the day after the crisis and the market was full of people buying and selling fruit and vegetables. Everyone is busy getting back to normal life, considering that the concept of normality is somewhat relative.

You visited one of the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the edge of the city. In what conditions are people living?
The camp is overflowing with IDPs that live one on top of the other in tiny huts which leak water when it rains. They feel constantly in danger, as they are often targeted when violence erupts and armed rebels enter the camp. One day I visited a woman who was shouting and crying because she had been told that her food rations card had been used by someone else. There is so much desperation among the IDPs.

The IDPs have occupied public places like schools and parishes. Can you speak to us about this aspect?
Some IDPs take refuge in schools during the night and leave during the day to allow the students to take classes. The scene that struck me most was seeing displaced families who cooked their food, corn and beans, right outside the classes where students were studying. To remain concentrated in class, the children have to make a huge effort. It must be underlined, however, that local people have shown a huge amount of solidarity with the displaced population. Just think, many local families are hosting IDPs in their homes.

Within the emergency context JRS has decided to intervene in the area of education, rebuilding schools and distributing school materials. What does this mean for the lives of displaced students?
We have decided to intervene in the area of education in order to give displaced children the possibility of going to school and nurturing hope for the future notwithstanding the emergency and suffering from conflict. In the face of so many needs, you ask yourself what can be the contribution of an organisation like JRS. The response that we have given is that even though our contribution is only a drop in the ocean, for them our presence is very important because they realise that there is someone who takes care of them and this makes them feel less alone.

You spent Christmas period in Goma. What was it like?
Spending Christmas in Goma meant touching the real sense of the figure Jesus Christ. He too was born into vulnerable circumstances, exactly like these children and all the inhabitants of eastern Congo.

Christmas in Goma makes you understand Jesus as He who is present in suffering and, consequently, you catch a glimpse of Him in these people. It is very touching to see how, notwithstanding the insecurity and scent of war, the inhabitants of Goma wanted to celebrate Christmas and life; after mass everyone was outside drinking toasts and rejoicing; a sign of the triumph of hope and life even in the most dramatic circumstances.

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