Democratic Republic of the Congo: the promise of a new day in North Kivu
Though the situation remains volatile, security is gradually improving in some parts of eastern Congo. Thousands of people are taking the decision to return to their homes. The ICRC is helping them to start their lives over.
When she learned that the fighting had stopped, Beatrice Gasigua didn't hesitate. " I thought it was better to return home, " she explains as she breastfeeds one of her four children. " That was a week ago. I'd spent over a year in the Kibati camp for displaced people. Life is hard there. So here I am back in Rugari, and I'm ready to start living village life again. "
Slowly at first, people who had been forced to flee their homes in North Kivu began returning at the end of 2008. Now in mid-February the pace is picking up and, all along the dusty Goma road, once-empty villages are beginning to fill up again. Small groups of farmers are once again tilling the land.
" Before the war, almost 16,000 people lived here, " says César Sebikima, who heads the Congolese Red Cross in Rugari. " Many of them fled the fighting. Most have now come back, especially since the fighting stopped officially on 16 January. And people are still returning. "
Ms Gasigua and other returnees are crowded into the marketplace under the blazing sun to wait for their names to be called by the ICRC. The organization is there together with the Congolese Red Cross and the World Food Programme to distribute seed and agricultural implements.
Starting over isn't easy
The distributions have been organized for almost 50,000 people throughout North Kivu. For weeks displaced people have been discreetly visiting their villages during the day to assess prospects for a definitive return. When they judge security conditions adequate, they move back. The ICRC is helping them do this by means of specific aid.
" We're giving two kinds of aid here, " says Abdallah Togola, who runs the organization's economic security programmes in the area. " The first is food rations for 90 days, to tide people over to the first harvest. The second is the means to get agricultural production started again. For each family this involved two hoes, 15 kg of bean seed, 200 sweet potato cuttings, and 30 kg of amaranth, a leafy vegetable. "
Getting started isn't easy when a lifetime of toil has been obliterated. " My house has been destroyed, " says Ms Gasigua. " All my valuables have been stolen and my fields lie empty. My chickens and my goats have disappeared. " For the moment, she is living with her husband and children under a makeshift shelter fashioned from a tarpaulin that they brought with them from the camp.
" They even stole my corrugated iron roof, " complains Edouard Hishamunda, who fled his village, Mugora, a year and a half ago " with only what I could carry on my back. " A year later, in October 2008, he was once again displaced by fighting. Mr Hishamunda's son is disabled so, though he is 72 years old, he must support four grandchildren aged two to 12.
But the aid has renewed his optimism. " I'm going to plant beans, amaranth and sweet potatoes. What we don't eat I'll sell. That way I can pay for clothes, the doctor, and school for the kids. "
The right time to plant
" It's the right time to plant, " Ms Gasigua enthuses. " The crop will be ready in four months. If the harvest is good, I can buy a few chickens. "
But some of those who fled will never return. Bahati Renzaho's youngest son, for example. " He wasn't even two yet, and they shot him while we were running away. " They buried the child, then pushed on to Goma, where they lived in a church. " It wasn't easy, but we got by. Last week we came back to our village. Some friends are putting us up. Now I'll be able to work my fields. "
The day is drawing to a close. Hundreds of returnees have trudged away laden with cans of oil, sacks of seed and the other items. Some live over on the slopes of the Mikeno volcano. They face a tough three-hour climb. Suddenly a light rain begins to fall, bringing a bit of relief from the terrible heat. Like the promise of a new day.