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Democratic Republic of Congo: lives hanging in the balance in North Kivu
28 February 2012

JRS accompanies forcibly displaced children and their families in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
Now we have nothing at all and, what's more, our lives are still in danger, said Mr Mateene, head of Kishondja unofficial camp in Masisi, eastern DRC.
North Kivu, 28 February 2012 – Emmanuel Mirimo Mateene used to own a house and a small piece of farm land. His life was peaceful and it was relatively easy for him to put food on the table for his family. But that was before broke out war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Now we have nothing at all and, what's more, our lives are still in danger", said Mr Mateene, head of Kishondja unofficial camp in Masisi, eastern DRC.

Although the war officially ended 10 years ago, peace and stability are nothing but an illusion for the population of the eastern regions. The camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) are overcrowded and living conditions are at best precarious. Most camp residents are still vulnerable to random attacks, and must get by without assistance.

Kishondja camp is home to more than a 1,000 IDPs and Emmanuel's story is similar to that of more than half a million others forced to flee their villages due to atrocities carried out by armed rebel groups active in North Kivu and violent clashes between the rebels and regular DRC armed forces. Personal privacy is impossible due to close confinement. People live in cramped mud huts, and the rudimentary sanitary facilities are frequently the cause of devastating diseases, especially for the young.

The situation is more complicated for children. Forced to abandon their homes, there is a desperate shortage of education in the camps. What education that is available is often not accessible to all. Many girls are obliged by their parents to give up school in order to be available for domestic chores. The risk of the onset of depression and profound apathy is extremely high.

Without aid, still in danger

North Kivu is home more than 30 official IDP camps, hosting approximately 80,000 people. But there are many more unofficial camps where living conditions are even more difficult. For instance, in the camp where Emmanuel lives, IDPs did not receive plastic sheeting from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to protect them from the violent tropical storms, nor do they receive food regularly from the World Food Programme.

Despite having left their villages because of the insecurity, IDPs continue to live in danger.

"People are constantly attacked in the forests just outside the camp and the security forces do nothing to protect them. Not to mention our women who, every day, are victims of rape when they leave the camp to search for food and firewood", explained Emmanuel.

Kindling optimism in the camps

JRS teams know well that most IDPs dream of returning home and enjoying the kind of peaceful and existence lives Emmanuel led before the war. They also know that with the instability in the region this is not going to happen overnight.

In the interim, all they can do is reinforce their support in the 14 official and unofficial camps around Masisi and Mweso towns where JRS provides emergency assistance, and informal and formal education services.

It is not just about offering quality services, but about accompanying individuals and families through the most traumatic moments in their lives, helping them feel less alone and courage in their hearts. Although this work is a mere drop in the ocean of suffering in North Kivu, teams hope the JRS style of proximity to IDPs will in some way rekindle their desire to live and hope that the future will not abandon them.

This is the challenge now facing JRS staff in Masisi and Mweso, one to which they will dedicate themselves for as long as is necessary.