By David Blair
All of the 7,000 people gathered around a school on the northern edge of the city of Goma were enduring the trauma of forced displacement for at least the second time.
First, they had fled their home villages for the supposed safety of Kanyuruchinya camp north of Goma. But this erstwhile haven lay squarely in the path of the rebel assault, becoming a battlefield for the M23 insurgents and the national army.
So the refugees moved again, this time to Donbosco school, where dilapidated buildings cluster in the lava flow of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano with a permanently smoking crater.
Some had fled two camps in the last five days, making them not double but triple-displaced at the hands of M23. In all, the rebel offensive emptied Kanyuruchinya camp of every one of its 50,000 inhabitants.
Tabu Taliana, 38, left on Sunday when the fighting broke out. “There were gunshots and explosions and the national army soldiers were running away. We had to go,” she remembered.
When she left her village in June – her first displacement – her uncle, Kasore, was severely maimed by a mortar bomb that shattered both of his legs. “I have not seen him since then,” she said.
Mrs Taliana and her children arrived in their latest place of refuge with nothing except the clothes they wore. They now sleep in the open air, on a concrete verge outside a school building.
Other fugitives have flooded every classroom and a large assembly hall, leaving thousands to sleep outside on razor sharp volcanic rock, the legacy of Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption in 2002. Smoke rises from cooking pots and, everywhere, ragged and barefoot children run, play or forage for food and firewood.
Solange Uwase, 26, has now been displaced three times. She fled her village in July after four M23 rebels raped her neighbour. She then spent four months in Kanyuruchinya camp before leaving on Sunday when M23 pressed home their offensive.
Mrs Uwase took her son and two daughters, aged between three and eight, to another camp on Goma’s western fringe, only to find that it was engulfed in fighting when the national army made their retreat nearby.
So she ran away again, arriving at Donbosco school on Tuesday. Mrs Uwase and her family sleep on the black porous rock which covers every inch of ground.
Meanwhile, Kanyurchinya camp – cleared of all its inhabitants – has been reduced to a deserted wasteland. Ragged children and contented pigs forage for the debris left by fleeing refuges. The value of what they were compelled to discard is a measure of their desperation. Lying in the mud were blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and even pairs of shoes.
Aid agencies, who have evacuated many staff from Goma, are struggling to help the thousands newly displaced by M23’s offensive. Tariq Riebl, the humanitarian programme coordinator for Oxfam, said that disease was the main threat for the refugees massed around Donbosco school.
“The biggest gap for us is in sanitation and hygiene,” he said. “We are worried about cholera specifically.”
Yesterday, the rebels encountered serious opposition for the first time since Goma’s fall, fighting a fierce battle with the national army and its allied militias in the town of Sake, 15 miles to the west. Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Runiga, head of the insurgents’ political wing, said that M23 would defy the United Nations Security Council and keep Goma, pending peace negotiations.
Congo’s pitiless cycle of displacement followed by re-displacement is turning again. Thousands of people have fled the fighting in Sake, heading along the road towards Goma, where they may be forced to flee again if the war comes here again and M23 is compelled to relinquish its latest prize.