Friends of mine with humanitarian organizations in Congo had been warning over the summer that they didn’t think the fragile ceasefire between the rebels and the government would hold much longer.
They were right.
This week rebel CNDP forces are battling the Congolese Army around Sake and Rugari outside of Goma, and hopes for stability in North Kivu seem a distant dream. On my first trip to Eastern Congo nearly a year ago I witnessed the effects of similar fighting, between the same forces, at the same locations. Sadly little seems to have changed.
The UN estimates at least 100,000 civilians have been displaced in the past month, on top of the hundreds of thousands who fled last fall’s heavy clashes. They now total nearly 1.2 million displaced over the past two years. The Congo Advocacy Organization, a coalition of 80 local and international organizations, warns that these numbers and the corresponding humanitarian disaster could grow if fighting continues to spread throughout North Kivu unchecked.
The fighting began a month ago in late August when there were brief clashes in Rugari and neighboring areas 30 miles northeast of Goma. In the past weeks it has taken on renewed momentum that I fear will be hard to stop.
I visited Rugari last June with a convoy of gruff Indian peacekeepers from the UN mission, MONUC. Our convoy left Goma in the morning and passed lumbering Red Cross trucks and haphazardly constructed army posts, winding up a road into a thin UN buffer zone set between tense government soldiers and Laurent Nkunda’s rebels.
The last thing I expected to see arriving on the ‘front line’ was a fully operational elementary school with 400 students.
A mobile UN base with several dozen soldiers occupied half of the school. Razor wire, sandbags and automatic weapons were a reminder that despite the carefree sounds of students playing, life here was dangerous, constantly shadowed by the prospect of violence.
On a foot patrol the soldiers and I cut through the playground and throngs of students playing soccer. We walked in a long line towards the nearby hill, under a rebel position a few hundred meters away, barely visible under the foliage. Decaying homes along the path, looted and abandoned, were a stark reminder of last year’s fighting and a promise of the consquences of future clashes.
Most of the adults still slept in the camps at night (mainly Kibumba), but with MONUC’s reassuring presence they had been able to return to farming the steep hills by day, within shouting distance of the rebel positions. They had regained a precious sliver of normalcy in their lives.
As we returned down the path towards the school, I thought how remarkable it was to see children, and their teachers, risking their lives every day for the chance of an education. It was a symbol of bravery and hope in the face of Congo’s wearying violence.
I was told by MONUC that after the August fighting the school and the UN base were still in place. But this week’s heavy fighting places these students and their families in greater peril, and despite a call to the peacekeeper’s information office I have not been able to find out what has happened to the students and teachers of the Rugari school. Were these eager students forced to join the tired lines of the faceless thousands of “internally displaced” in Eastern Congo? Or into the ranks of the army or militias as many before?
For their sake I pray this latest round of fighting loses momentum.
Posted By: Michael Graham | September 26, 2008 | Comments (0)