At least 20 killed, including 10 soldiers, in central DR Congo as security forces clashed with armed fighters.
Democratic Republic of Congo – Fifty-year-old Marie Chantel Batende feels as though she is stuck between a volcanic rock and a hard place. Four years ago, she fled her home when M23 rebels raided her farming village in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) North Kivu province, making it to the Bulengo camp, an isolated and barren site for internally displaced people (IDP) where makeshift tents sit atop dark volcanic rock.
Bulengo is more than 10km of unpaved, rock-filled roads away from the provincial capital, Goma.
“I used to be more beautiful,” Batende , who now serves as Bulengo‘s elected deputy president, told Al Jazeera in July. “The wars stole my beauty. It’s been a tough life.”
Batende lives in Congo’s mineral-rich east, a region that has, for decades, been plagued by fighting between various rebel groups and the Congolese government. She has five children who, as a result of being separated from their father and other relatives due to the fighting, she has cared for on her own.
Fighting and hardship have displaced Batende more times than she can remember.
Over the years, she repeatedly fled her home in Ntoto village for nearby communities, returning just weeks or months after the violence had subsided – only to be sent running again soon after. Then, on one occasion, it did not feel safe to return – so Batende reluctantly made Bulengo her home.
She is not alone in this. An estimated 1.9 million Congolese were displaced as of September after two decades of war, hunger, and disease, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs told Al Jazeera.
While the majority of displaced Congolese seek shelter with family members or in host communities, tens of makeshift IDP camps have been set up over the years to shelter those, like Batende , who have been pushed too far from home by the fighting.
Since 2012, around 59,000 IDPs have made their way to Bulengo from across the east, Batende explained. But, here in the camp, clean water, food, money, medicine, jobs and education are rarely available. Charitable groups, NGOs and UN programmes have, over the years, provided support. But with so many people in need across the east, help is always temporary, Batende said.
“Here we are suffering so much,” she said. “It’s only hunger. Children do not study. There is no food, no water.”
Women are afraid to venture far for firewood or water because of the threat of sexual assault, while men are forced to travel long distances for work, or risk arrest for poaching in the nearby Virunga National Park.
Still, in her capacity as deputy president of the camp, Batende said she has done what she can to push the government and the UN for improvements in the life she and other IDPs have been forced to live.
Life is, however, becoming more difficult for the IDPs. The government has been closing the camps and increasing pressures and restrictions on humanitarian agencies.
Since 2014, the governor of North Kivu province – an ally of President Laurent Kabila – has been calling for the closure of all IDP camps. Five have been closed since last year, while overall 47 of 60 still remain, Laingulia Njewa, the head of the National Refugee Committee (CNR) of North Kivu, which is in charge of the closures, told Al Jazeera.
Njewa said that the government is closing camps because parts of North Kivu have been stabilised and people should be able to return to their homes. He alleges that some of the camps have become hotbeds of violence, harbouring rebels who are fighting against the government. Closing the camps is also part of the government’s efforts to curb the work of NGOs, who, Njewa claimed, wasted money on projects without government and community oversight.
“There are some NGOs that come with money and they make their own projects, which are not really helpful and which nobody can control,” Njewa said.
Anna Halford, the deputy head of mission in North Kivu for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, said that NGOs should be considered individually.
“What’s for sure is that there remain basic needs that are not met for different reasons,” Halford said.
MSF does not only work with IDPs in the DRC; it also runs projects that support the general population. The organisation ran a mobile clinic in Bulengo that closed in 2014.
“It is entirely possible that different NGO models are not capable of meeting the needs [of IDPs],” she said, especially, she added, if there is not enough funding available.
“It’s not a subject that is easily covered by black and white responses,” Halford said.
Neither the UN nor aid organisations have a legal right to compel governments to keep IDP camps open, but the UN has criticised some of the camp closures as contrary to humanitarian guidelines.
In January, when North Kivu authorities closed the Mokoto camp, which was located 70km northwest of Goma and sheltered 4,300 people, for allegedly hiding Mayi-Mayi rebels and stocking firearms, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Civilian Affairs (OCHA) in the DRC, Rein Paulsen, denounced the closure as “collective punishment imposed on vulnerable people”.
NGOs walk a fine line in the DRC, where the government is often distrustful of their work and the scrutiny they bring. In August, the government deported long-time researcher for Human Rights Watch and vocal critic of government repression, Ida Sawyer.
Aid agencies have also had to substantially scale down operations because of drops in funding, alongside a rise in insecurities in North Kivu, including kidnappings of humanitarian workers for ransom, and clashes between the military and the pro-Rwandan Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. MSF closed some projects after armed rebels abducted two staff members in December 2015.
And yet, over the last 18 months, there has been an increase in the number of IDPs due to a resurgence of armed groups in certain parts of North and South Kivu, Timothy Bishop of Catholic Relief Services, which works in the east of the country, told Al Jazeera.
“The root causes of displacement of populations are quite far from being resolved,” said Halford. “When you’ve got security contexts like we’ve got, it’s not going to be resolved soon.”
But for some Congolese, like civil society leader and journalist Chrispin Mvano Yabauma, the government’s call to curb camps and NGOs resonates deeply. Many feel angry about the millions of dollars that have been spent by the more than 100 humanitarian agencies working in the east, while deep and widespread problems still seem to persist.
“We agree that the Congolese government is not working well, but that’s not an excuse [for NGOs] to not be doing their jobs,” Yabauma told Al Jazeera in Goma. “It only benefits those who work with NGOs.”
“NGOs come with budgets, and then spend time justifying budgets … It’s big images, little impact.”
Further complicating the camp closures is the DRC’s current election impasse. Kabila, who has been president for 15 years, is engaged in a battle to stay in power when his term constitutionally ends in this month – and IDPs have been caught up in this, as his allies argue that the country is safer under his rule.
Emma Fanning of the British charity Oxfam said that while threats of camp closures have been around for years, there were similar escalations around the previous presidential elections. “Everyone is looking at DRC through the prism of elections,” she explained last June.
DRC has never had a peaceful transfer of power. Waves of armed conflict have ravaged the country’s east since the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda – which pushed millions of Rwandan refugees and rebels over the border – and the fall of longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
The central African country fought two wars from 1996 to 2003, which drew in half a dozen neighbouring countries, and killed and wounded millions, the majority from hunger and disease.
Kabila has ruled since taking over from his murdered father in 2001, was elected in 2006, and re-elected in 2011 amid widespread controversy.
Last September, deadly violence returned to the streets of the DRC after Kabila announced the postponement of presidential elections then slated for November. The opposition insists that the incumbent has delayed the polls in order to stay in power. In mid-October, bolstered by a constitutional court ruling, the government formally moved to put off elections until 2018, raising fears that he and his allies will resort to violence and repression to cling to power.
Back in Bulengo, Batende , like other IDPs interviewed, said she supported the government’s decision to close the camps, in theory, because she too wants to go home. Thousands of IDPs have been leaving Bulengo in recent months, heeding the government’s warnings that the camps will close.
But those who have stayed, like Batende , have nowhere to go: their old lives are destroyed and the journey back is not safe, she said.
“If people can go back to the villages, people are ready to go,” she said. “You can’t go back to a place that’s not secure.”
Others who remain in Bulengo feel the same way. Salome Kanyere Musavuli has five children and a maimed leg. She broke a bone when fleeing the FLDR rebels in her village in Masisi and never had it properly set. “I can’t climb the mountains to go back [home],” she said.
Sixty-year-old Baidika Nakabulu voted for Kabila in the last election. Now, his hair is white from all the suffering Kabila wrought, he laments.
His stare holds steady as he shares his message to the world: “They should bring us peace to go back to our farms. To work. To live.”
The International Women’s Media Foundation supported reporting for this story