A life in limbo in the IDP camps of the Democratic Republic of Congo
Kanyere Sifa, a 26-year-old single mother, has just given birth to her sixth child.
Mungualiho Kakomire, a 45-year-old resident of the internally displaced people’s camp of Bulengo in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, doesn’t know how long she’s been pregnant.
“There’s no way to know here how long I’ve been pregnant,” she said. “In our community, we just get pregnant and then when the time comes, we deliver the baby at some point. I am warning you, I am heavily pregnant at the moment. The time has come. I can give birth any time,” she said.
Neither does she know how many pregnancies she had in her lifetime. “We don’t count the babies who died, stillborn babies or miscarriages. There are simply too many,” said the mother of seven.
“I am older now. Pregnancy is so much more difficult,” added Kakomire. She has been experiencing abnormal abdominal pains and is scared for her baby’s life and her own. However, she will be delivering her baby in the tent she lives, with the help of her husband. For the 15 years she has lived in the Bulengo camp, she has never seen a doctor.
Kakomire is one of the millions of women living in the IDP camps of the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. A member of the indigenous pygmy community which traditionally inhabited the forests, her family was forced to leave their traditional homelands as the conflict heightened the security risks. Rebels thrived in the jungles that were home to pygmies for thousands of years, forcing Kakomire’s community to leave. When the conflict internally displaced her family, she thought it would be a temporary situation and they would eventually get back to their normal lives. But 15 years on, she has lost hope that she’ll leave the IDP camp in her lifetime.
“We don’t want to return to the bush, it’s still very dangerous there,” she said. “We also forgot our survival skills in the jungle. We wouldn’t be able to survive there if we went back. But we cannot go to a city either. What would we do in a city?”
Kakomire’s state of limbo is not unique. Since 2009, 3 million people in the DRC have been displaced with at least 40 armed groups active in the eastern provinces of the country. Up to 80 percent of the population in IDP camps tend to be women like Kakomire and their children. As the fighting continues, they cannot go back to their places of origin, but they don’t have the means to move forward with their lives either.
According to Raffaella Pascarella, a resettlement officer at the UNHCR working with the IDP camps in the Eastern DRC, living in these camps for extended periods of time has been the normalcy, as the IDP camps blended with the urban landscapes of Goma – the nearest major town to the most IDP camps.
“There are 54 camps around Goma [in the Eastern DRC] at the moment. Some of the camps expanded so much, they became a part of the outskirts of Goma,” she said.
“But resettling to Goma isn’t really an option for most of the IDPs. The city has grown uncontrollably and it’s very saturated now. It’s also quite expensive,” Pascarella explained, emphasizing that most IDPs wouldn’t have the adequate skills, literacy and education to have an economically sustainable life in Goma.
Goma, a stone’s throw away from the Rwandan border, has seen its population skyrocket from 170,000 from 1996 to an estimated 1 million in 2012 due to the exodus of Rwandan refugees – some of whom also still live in the IDP camps – and the ongoing civil war in the eastern provinces of the DRC. In the last decades, the city also attracted economic migrants due to the fertile soils between two volcanoes– which also pose risks of eruption that can affect 800,000 people as some of the most active volcanoes in Africa.
“The situation at the IDP camps in Eastern Congo has been a chronic one for the last two decades,” said Stacey White, a humanitarian policy analyst who worked extensively in these camps. “Hence, the international community doesn’t consider this an emergency anymore. It’s no longer the top priority. But it’s not considered an area in transition either – so there is no traditional development work going on.”
Without any economic prospects and a limited amount of aid, women like Kakomire rely on occasional food aid, or going into the bush to pick edible roots or vegetables. Due to the poor hygiene conditions in the camps, they also need to boil their water – which requires them to collect wood to make charcoal in an increasingly deforested area. With the high birth rates in the camps and the population density, women need to venture further and further in the bush. Long hours spent in remote areas with these tasks also make them vulnerable to sexual assaults.
“There are so many children in the camps born of rapes,” White explained. “But it’s still a very big taboo and most of the rape cases go unreported.”
Kanyere Sifa, a 26-year-old single mother, has just given birth to her sixth child in a local clinic in the IDP camp of Muganga – where there are no doctors, but some nurses. Sifa spent the majority of her life in these camps, rotating around the camps depending on where she can get the most help.
“I’ve never had any access to birth control in my life,” she said.
The clinic where Sifa had given birth is one of the only clinics that serve the IDP communities. The nurses are able to assist some of the women without complications. However, the cost of this assistance is 11,500 Congolese Francs ($12) and hence isn’t accessible to most women, who typically don’t have incomes. Furthermore, women in the remote communities might have to walk there for hours to give birth, which might also accelerate the security risks.
Pascarella believes basic services like maternal health, education, some occupational training and introduction of organic material to burn instead of charcoal could be “easy wins” and jump-start the process for the women and the younger generation to reconstruct their lives. However, funding is an issue.
“The international community forgot about the IDPs in Congo,” Pascarella said. “There have been huge cuts in the budgets of donors. The funding and the number of beneficiaries are getting less and less.”
However, even if such projects to reconstruct the lives of these women are realized, Pascarella believes it’s not the ultimate solution, adding: “The only way to permanently solve the issues of these women is peace and stability in Eastern Congo.”
Didem Tali was an African Great Lakes Initiative Fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation.