Thomas Tumusifu Buregeya wishes he were studying for his final school exams. Instead, he scrapes a living doing odd jobs in a displaced people’s camp in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo after a wave of rebel violence upended his life yet again.
Buregeya fled the town of Kibumba with his family in October amid a renewed offensive by the March 23 Movement (M23) rebel group – the third time in 15 years he has been forced to escape his home – and has not been able to study for a whole year. He is now 22 and still waiting to complete school.
“When from this camp I see … finalists like me, it makes my heart ache, I wonder when I will finish my studies, the years are going by,” he said.
He is one of the 750,000 young Congolese whose schooling is currently disrupted by insecurity caused by multiple armed groups in the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) estimated in late March.
Neighbours at war
For months, Kinshasa has accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 group making incursions into the DRC’s east, increasing tensions between the neighbours.
The conflict in the region has gone on for decades, with more than 100 armed groups fighting for control of valuable mineral resources while others protect their communities, and has triggered an exodus of refugees.
Kigali in turn accuses the DRC of supporting the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), another rebel group based in the DRC that has carried out raids into Rwanda in the past.
The FDLR has been accused of participation in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which ethnic Hutus killed more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus who tried to protect them.
Last year, United Nations experts said they had “substantial evidence” of Rwandan government forces crossing into the DRC to reinforce M23 rebels or to conduct operations against the FDLR.
The United States and the European Union have urged Rwanda to stop supporting the rebels.
The Rwandan government has denied supporting M23 and says the accusations are part of a “tired old blame game” undermining efforts for peace, “to which Rwanda is fully committed”.
In the small camp next to an evangelical church outside the provincial capital Goma, Buregeya spends his time leaning against the tin wall of the church or playing cards with school friends also displaced from Kibumba.
Since January 2022, some 2,100 schools in eastern DRC have had to close because of armed conflict, according to UNICEF.
The damage could be lasting. Without access to education, children and young people can miss the chance to develop the skills needed to escape poverty and overcome the desperate economic challenges that help increase conflict in places such as mineral-rich eastern DRC, according to a 2011 UN report on global education and armed conflict.
Buregeya fears time is running out for him.
“My life’s dream was to go to university after high school, to look for a job, become a teacher and earn a living,” he said.