Lulingu, South Kivu, in the turbulent east of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a region of few roads and dense forests, whose 170,000 inhabitants are regularly forced to flee at the whim of armed groups.
For the past 20 years, this region of 6,500 square kilometres has been immersed in violence. When the fighting comes close, villagers take refuge in the forest. When the armed men have moved on, they return to their villages and fields to see what has been left standing, and to start rebuilding and replanting what they have lost.
At least two rival armed groups claim Lulingu as their territory, while both fight the Congolese army. As one group advances, the other retreats; as one retreats, the other advances. The fighting swings back and forth like a pendulum, displacing local people from their homes and inflicting losses on them time and time again.
“We often have to flee clashes between the Raïa Mutomboki [self-defence groups who control part of the area] and the regular army,” says Elisée, aged 18, from the village of Ngola. “This is why we can’t tend our fields. When we’re able to return, either the crops have spoiled, or they’ve destroyed or burnt it all.”
For people who make their living from farming or livestock and who depend on the land, the constant need to flee and return, to start again from scratch and then flee again, means that just subsisting is a struggle.
“When we are hiding in the forest, finding enough to eat is a problem,” says Kaburiwazi, a 30-year-old miner from Ngola. “We have to go to other villages to find food to eat. With all of the security problems, we’ve not been able to harvest our crops. Now that everything is a little calmer, we’re all hoping to harvest in January.”
To help displaced people in this remote area, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) recently organised a distribution of aid in eight villages between Nduma and Makala.
Nduma and its surrounding villages are inaccessible by road. Unable to use four-wheeled vehicles, MSF teams took to two wheels, transporting the aid on the back of 30 motorcycles – an operation which took 12 days. They provided 519 families with essentials including mosquito nets, jerry cans, kitchen utensils, soap, blankets, mats, clothing, fabric and farming tools.
Being regularly forced from home by violence makes normal life impossible. Displaced people have nothing they can rely on: no regular meals, no schools for their children, no jobs, nowhere to sleep, no access to medical services. This makes them extremely vulnerable and at a high risk of contracting illnesses. “Before, when you fell ill, you expected never to be cured,” says Kaburiwazi. That has changed, as MSF is now renovating the community health centre in Makala, where it has already started offering free medical services.
Elsewhere in South Kivu, there are similar needs. In October, MSF teams distributed first aid kits and provided psychological support to some 2,700 people displaced in the Luntukulu area, while a team is ready in Luntukulu health centre to treat people for malnutrition after the alarm was raised of an impending nutrition crisis.