Information in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is often like a game of telephone. It's hard, if not impossible, to pinpoint where a rumor begins, let alone how much it changed from the original source and if it had any credibility to begin with.
As the area manager for the international humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide in the war-torn province of North Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, distinguishing fact from fiction is a big part of my job. And in a country where security can change in an instant, acting on lies and failing to act on truth can have very real -- even fatal -- consequences.
Reports of a potential advance towards the provincial capital, Goma, by the M23 rebel movement started to circulate on Wednesday, November 14th. I got a call from one of our national staff who had heard that they were planning to 'enter Goma soon,' but was initially quite skeptical as no other source could confirm this. When I woke up that next morning, I learned that the M23 were fighting the Congolese national army, FARDC, in Kibumba, just 19 miles north of Goma. By Saturday, M23 had taken control of Kibumba. Suddenly, what seemed unlikely had become a tangible threat.
As the M23 moved from Kibumba to Kibati, the final village on the way to Goma, we started to receive reports that FARDC troops were abandoning their posts and retreating. As the M23 advanced, one of the main internally displaced persons (IDP) camps north of Goma emptied, sending some 60,000 fleeing their homes and belongings to neighborhoods and areas, mostly to the west of Goma, thought to be safer.
As the rumors flew, one thing was clear: panic had set in.
No one was sure what the arrival of the M23 would bring. While some families fled their homes as the M23 arrived in their neighborhoods, others barricaded themselves in, too scared to come out. A few lined the streets to watch them enter and welcome them in. While I had been lucky enough to move across the border to Rwanda and the relative safety of Gisenyi, the well-being and location of our staff who were still in Goma was a constant worry. Knowing that they were crouched under beds and tables as we spoke on the phone and hearing shelling and gunfire in the background was incredibly difficult.
However, by Tuesday, November 20th, the M23 had full control of Goma and with it, they brought relative calm. They met little resistance when they arrived. Most FARDC fled and left it for the taking, while the UN peacekeeping forces, known as MONUSCO, did not resist. Soon after they arrived, they took over government offices and border posts and broadcast a message on the radio, requesting that life return quickly to normal.
Initially it was difficult to get a good sense of the number of people who were displaced as the fighting moved around Goma. Those from Kanyaruchinya IDP camp, to the north of Goma, initially moved west and into schools, churches and homes in the city center, but as the fighting moved west, families often fled again. Fighting in Sake, a town 12 miles west of Goma, also pushed thousands to flee in the direction of Goma. The United Nations now estimates that 140,000 people were displaced because of the fighting in the M23 advance and takeover of Goma.
When I was first able to reenter Goma on November 26th, I was surprised that the city was relatively calm, at least on the surface. People were out and about. Government offices were open -- though now with M23 members inside them. However, reports of general, as well as targeted, looting and violence tell a different story. Banks also remain closed, as do most schools. Even those schools that are open may not have many children in them -- many parents are still too scared to let their children go to school for fear that violence will flare up again, and many others are housing hundreds or thousands of displaced people.
While the M23 withdrew from Goma on Saturday, December 1, ending their 10-day occupation of the city, the humanitarian needs do not vanish with their departure. Because families are forced from their homes with few, if any, supplies, they are often unable to meet even the most basic human needs, like food, clean water and shelter. People often do not have access to basic services like health care, and education for their children is disrupted.
Cholera is also a threat. Before the M23 takeover, there was a cholera outbreak in Kanyaruchinya camp -- the camp that emptied as the M23 entered Goma. Its 60,000 residents are now scattered across the city, many of them living in spontaneous camps without clean water and sanitation facilities, making cholera very difficult to contain.
Concern is now preparing to distribute basic household supplies to 4,500 households throughout IDP settlements across Goma. These supplies, what we aid workers call "non-food items," will allow people to cook and collect water and stay warm, dry, and clean.
Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, and even if the M23 rebellion abates, long-term peace in North and South Kivu remains an unlikely prospect. Other armed groups will continue to tear apart eastern DRC and subject the Congolese people to displacement and horrific human rights violations, destroying any possibility for peace and security. Unfortunately, it's only when one rebel group takes a large provincial city here that DRC makes it onto the evening news or into the newspaper.
The sad fact is that violence in DRC is constant. As Congolese activist Vava Tampa recently reported in an article on CNN, the conflicts in DRC
... have claimed nearly the same number of lives as having a 9/11 attack every single day for 360 days, the genocide that struck Rwanda in 1994, the ethnic cleansing that overwhelmed Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the genocide that took place in Darfur, the number of people killed in the great tsunami that struck Asia in 2004, and the number of people who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- all combined and then doubled.
What will happen next in DRC? Anything is possible -- and we need the world to keep listening. As many as 5.4 million people died in the last Congo war. That is fact, not fiction. And we cannot afford for it to happen again.