Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – Nyirandatuje Dorothee was harvesting her fields when an invasion of her village in the eastern DRC province of North Kivu by an armed mob found her caught in the crossfire.
With the rest of her family in different parts of the village, she grabbed three grandchildren in closest proximity to her, carried one on her back and ran away.
Dorothee found shelter with others who escaped similar incidents of violence, and a week later she ended up at an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in the Rutshuru district, known as the Kiwanja camp, only 10km to 15km away from her home. Meanwhile, her sons and daughters managed to escape into Uganda.
That was back in 2009.
Today, Dorothee is still living in the same camp and is one of 75,000 IDPs sheltering in UN camps in North Kivu.
After the 1998 to 2003 Second Congo war officially ended with the creation of a transitional government, many of the 3.4 million people displaced as a result of the conflict returned home, according to the International Displacement Monitoring Centre.
But displacement continued in the eastern DRC, as government troops battled armed groups based in the forests along the borders with Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
When the Congolese army began its offensive against the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) in late 2008, thousands of families were forced to flee their homes, resulting in displacements into Uganda, Rwanda and within North Kivu province itself.
Waiting for peace
While about 2,800 people returned to their homes in Rutshuru in 2010, as security improved, clashes in 2011 between Congolese armed forces (FARDC) and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) resulted in yet another scattering across the region.
Many who had attempted to return home were forced to seek protection at existing IDP camps or to create new ones.
At the Kiwanja camp in Rutshuru, a second spontaneous shelter sprung up, adjacent to the first one that had mushroomed in 2008.
The camps, made up of igloo-shaped huts with mud walls, patched by wooden sticks, dried palm leaves and UNHCR sheets for shelter, is home to more than 2,000 people living in squalid conditions, simply too afraid to return home.
Dorothee is one of the “residents” of the old camp who is refusing to return until she is certain it is safe enough to do so.
“After I left [my home], my children left Uganda and it took me seven months to find one of my grandchildren … I am waiting for peace so we can return,” she says.
Her frustration and refusal to leave resonates with others living in the camp.
Jean Marie Maheshe escaped from his village Mokoka with his wife and 12 children in 2008, when fighting continued in the area for more than a week.
He says that living conditions in the camp have left him at the mercy of employers, and has also made his wife at risk from sexual predators.
“We are living as if we are still living in the jungle,” he says.
Simplice Kpanji, a UNHCR official based in Goma, says that the situation in the IDP camps is “a difficult sight, but we continue to monitor and the situation is calm for the time being”.
“The crucial thing is that they feel safe here but they want to get back to their normal lives,” Kpanji says.
The UN says it aims to find durable solutions for the displaced as a matter of course.
Dirk Jan Kock, director of the NGO Search for Common Ground (SFCG), says this is a crucial step towards successfully transforming Congolese society.
“Almost two million people are displaced in the DRC – and this means that people have a fear to go home … and yes, it is mainly in rural areas, and in areas where rebel armed groups operate,” he tells Al Jazeera from the capital, Kinshasa.
“But the problem does call for us to address underlying issues that continue to create this displacement in the first place.
“These underlying issues, in a place like North Kivu, usually involve unresolved issues like citizenship, conflict over land and resources.”
Similarly, Celine Schmitt, UNHCR’s external relations officer, based in Kinshasa, says that despite the fact that the number of camps was reduced from 42 to 31 between 2010 and 2011, renewed fighting has created a volatile situation promulgating new areas of instability in the North Kivu region.
“Some areas that were considered safe in 2010 are now again affected by conflict,” she says.
But it is not just North Kivu that has suffered upheavals. According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 123,000 people were displaced across the DRC in the first quarter of 2011 alone.
Kpanji says most IDPs are hoping that this year’s elections will finally facilitate their return home.
“They see the elections as a kind of solution for gaining peace,” he says.
“Some candidates have come here asking for us to vote … they give nothing, but they want our vote. “
– Jean Marie Maheshe, camp resident
Mujambere Rahema, who was displaced in November 2009 from the village of Katiguru, east of Kiwanja and close to the border with Uganda, agrees that “voting might just be the only way home”.
According to a representative of the old Kiwanja camp, “everyone is voting”.
Jean Marie Maheshe says “some candidates have come here asking for us to vote … they give nothing, but they want our vote”.
But he adds that in spite of these disappointments, including how little improvement has been made since the 2006 elections, “as a Congolese, we have to vote”.
Nyirandatuje Dorothe sits on a tiny wooden stool, next to her igloo-shaped hut and smiles, even during the painful parts, as she shares her story.
But she frowns when asked why she still trusts the system, the leadership, and the ability of the ballot to improve her life, and get her back to her farm.
“It’s the only option I have,” she says.
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