Goma, DRC – Ouimana Buiko Zawadi is desperate to get her story out. She sits with her four children and her brothers on the floor of a bare room in a camp for displaced people in Goma city – the capital of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
At night they sleep on a tattered mat in a corner of one of the two rooms that they share with 40 other people who recently fled ongoing violence in Tongo, about 80km northwest of Goma.
They have escaped conflict between the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and Nyatura rebels.
It is hard to interrupt her when she starts talking.
They started stealing from us, taxing us. If you refused to pay up they would kill you. They raped women
“We lived well back home, farmed and fed our children, then different rebel groups started fighting over our territory,” Ouimana says.
The eastern part of DRC is home to a number of armed groups, including FDLR, Nyatura and Mai Mai rebel groups.
“They started stealing from us, taxing us. If you refused to pay up they would kill you. They raped women,” the 35-year-old says.
“At night they would come and burn people’s houses. Even the forest where we would flee to was not safe. There were men with arms.”
She laments the lack of government security forces.
“So I decided to bring my children here. I think I’d rather they die of hunger than in the hands of a machete-wielding rebel,” she says.
Internally displaced people
Ouimana’s story reads like a horror novel. It is difficult to imagine the terror of a mother who only wants to save her children.
It took them a week by foot to get to Mugunga 3 camp for internally displaced peoplewhich about 4,000 others have called home, some for close to a decade.
DRC has about 3.7 million internally displaced people. More than 992,000 were displaced last year alone, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. This is the highest number in the world of internally displaced people registered in 2016.
An additional 1.3 million Congolese have fled the most recent violence in Kasai Province at the border with Angola. Most of them are seeking refuge in Angola.
The violence erupted last August after a rebellion by Kamuina Nsapu armed group, following which a military offensive was launched. More than 400 people have been killed, dozens of them beheaded – allegedly by the rebel fighters but security forces have also been accused by the UN of using excessive force against civilians.
At least 3,383 people have been killed in the fighting between DRC forces and militia members since last October, the country’s Catholic church said on Tuesday in a report.
The UN had previously said hundreds died in the violence. The church report also said DRC’s national army was responsible for destroying 10 villages, Reuters news agency reported.
The army’s spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.
Rafaella Pascarella from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees told Al Jazeera that DRC is a “forgotten crisis” and aid agencies have struggled to put the plight of those in need on the world agenda. She says huge budget cuts by donors have made it extremely difficult to carry out aid work.
Twenty-three years of armed conflict and inter-communal violence has taken a toll on this mineral-rich nation. People have been displaced by clashes, sometimes between the military and armed groups or between the rebels themselves.
The government has for years struggled to rid the country of the numerous armed groups, with more than 40 of them operating in North Kivu alone.
In 2013, the Congolese military (FARDC) and UN force (MONUSCO) defeated the largest armed group in the region, called M23. But other armed groups continue to operate as the military failed to act against them.
The government forces in 2014 launched an operation, Sokola 1, in South Kivu’s Beni region to push out fighters belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), who originated in neighbouring Uganda.
Within a year, the military claimed it had destroyed the rebel headquarters in Beni and pushed the few remaining fighters deep into the Virunga Park – away from Beni.
But soon after fighters believed to be members of ADF carried out a series of killings in Beni. Villages were attacked and more than 700 people have been killed since the end of the military operation. Last year, Sokola 1 was launched again and is still going on.
In 2015, another offensive was launched against the FDLR in North Kivu, whose presence in Congo dates back nearly 20 years.
The ongoing military operation has significantly weakened the armed group, which is wanted by neighbouring Rwanda. Reports indicate that only a few thousand remain and pose little threat to either Rwanda or DRC. But, their presence, no matter how small, does not sit comfortably with either country.
Thousands of former rebels have been disarmed and rehabilitated as part of a UN and Congolese government amnesty programme, but many more are still in the jungle.
In May this year, the government launched Sokola 2, an offensive to push out armed groups who have divided territories inside the Virunga National Park, and are said to be trading in charcoal and wildlife.
Colonel Bazil Kanuma from the DRC military, who is leading the operation, said his troops will stay in Nyamilima – the military headquarters of the operation – until the job is done.
“I ask the people we are pursuing and who are Congolese, to surrender and get help. If they don’t, then they will feel our wrath,” he said.
The first target is Mai-Mai, a Congolese armed group and the government’s biggest threat today. Mai-Mai was formed to protect their communities against rival armed groups – largely because there’s little government presence in many of the remote areas.
The group has since splintered into many factions. That’s what makes it dangerous and difficult to defeat. The fighters can also easily move around villages; they know the forest well and are mostly protected by communities.
The government has urged people to stop shielding rebels but the country’s leadership is so far removed from many who live in hard-to-access villages that trust is an issue.
People Al Jazeera spoke to in the villages said that to end the cycle of violence in DRC the government needs to build a relationship with the people based on trust.
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They further say that for the rebel groups to be eliminated, there cannot be a leadership and security vacuum that creates an atmosphere for them to thrive.
As long as the war against rebels continues to victimise civilians, all that’s being done is an exercise in futility, villagers said.
Some of the groups are said to be funded by influential individuals both in Congo and outside the country, sources told Al Jazeera.
The military is ill-equipped and soldiers poorly paid. Ethnic divisions and politics make the job even harder. A failure to address underlying causes of the conflict only adds to the cyclical nature of one of the world’s most complicated conflicts.
Ouimana is not hopeful that her home will be safe enough for her to return any time soon. She looks at her children and wonders about their future.
In the Mugunga camp, she joins people who have lived in dilapidated tents for nine years … and prays that she is not forced to stay here for years to come.