In pictures: The forgotten civilians of Goma

As M23 rebels withdraw from Goma, they leave behind a battered and scared population.


Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo - Renewed fighting across the country's eastern regions during the past eight months has disrupted and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The UN says that some 465,000 people have been displaced as Congolese forces (FARDC) battled the M23 rebel advance towards Goma.

The crisis reached a peak when Goma fell to the rebels on November 19, sending a message of intent to President Joseph Kabila's administration in Kinshasa.

After a standoff between FARDC forces and M23 that had the city in lockdown for two days, government forces left Goma as the rebels took over the administrative and security needs of the city.

But following FARDC's withdrawal from the city, the families of military members were left to deal with an occupying force all on their own.

The Katindo military camp in Goma was immediately seized and families ofFARDC soldiers were forced to flee their homes in the camp and seek refuge in schools and churches across the city.

Up to 2,000 families had lived in the military camp, the UN said.

Families of the FARDC officers and soldiers say they lost everything over the past two weeks.

"The conditions, if not addressed, will result in health problems. We need to reopen the schools, but so much has been destroyed here."

- Headteacher Kisirani Kahindo

Their homes have been looted, their properly confiscated and many are unsure over the whereabouts of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in the FARDC since the standoff with M23 began.

These are vulnerable civilians caught between a rebel movement and an unpopular national army: "Forgotten", as one humanitarian worker put it.

The ICRC, with the help of the Red Cross, identified at least 716 families related to the FARDC living in schools and churches across the city. While the insecurity of the past two weeks had forced schools to close, the schools had become a respite for escaping families. Thirty people were living here in classrooms, where conditions have now become squalid.

The headmaster, Kisirani Kahindo, told Al Jazeera that getting the school back to normal was going to difficult.

"The conditions if not addressed will result in health problems," the headmaster told Al Jazeera, "We need to reopen the schools but so much has been destroyed here."

School desks had been used as firewood, he said.

And while negotiations take place behind the scenes and an M23 withdrawal seems imminent, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on Friday delivered food and basic necessities to around the hundreds of families living here in makeshift accommodation.

"These families cannot live in the schools for much longer and with food security a very serious concern in Goma at this point, these families could do with the supplies," Ottavio Sardu, economic security delegate at the ICRC, told Al Jazeera.

Families were each given food to feed up to five people for 15 days, as well as household items, including blankets, clothes and toiletries, as it still remained unclear where these families would move once schools reopen.

But if the stark conditions of families living in schools tell the tale of the civilian population in this area, it is a narrative repeated in the many camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) across the country.

But it is when one visits the Katindo military camp, in the middle of Goma, that you get a sense of the scale of the crisis in the DRC.

The military camp, once home to soldiers of the national army, is a pathetic sight.

Soldiers' homes are nothing more than wooden sheds, with corrugated iron for roofs, the hard dark earth for floors and no sanitation or running water. Up to five families share a single, poorly covered "long drop" toilet facility.

Now as the M23 dismantles its operations, the camp lies silently bare and abandoned, like a military graveyard.

Dismantled army trucks, broken anti-aircraft weapons, army boots, army jackets and broken toys lie strewn across the large 802nd regiment headquarters.

Convinience stores, once the bearers of food, sweets and cool drinks, lie empty; their wooden doors set ajar, broken chairs and splintered wood the only trace of furniture left behind.

These are the conditions the Congolese army will have return to and build from.

Al Jazeera's Azad Essa reports on the forgotten civilians of Goma.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa