DRC: Thousands return home
KIMOKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, August 12 (UNHCR) - Mwabu Mlau is 58 but looks much older. His gaunt, creased face and white hair are a testament to his suffering over the past 15 years in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Conflict in his native North Kivu province has forced Mwabu to flee many times since 1996, when invading troops from neighbouring Rwanda shattered his tranquil rural life. Many others have shared the same painful experience of being constantly on the run.
Since relative peace returned to North Kivu in April last year, Mwabu and some 900,000 other internally displaced people (IDPs) have been able to return to their home areas and six out of seven UNHCR-run IDP camps have been closed.
Their return is a rare bright spot in a country that continues to suffer conflict and displacement on an unimagineable scale.
And the returnees still face huge challenges ahead.
Mwabu went back last year to Kimoka, 30 kilometres south-west of Goma, capital of North Kivu. This is not his native village, but was his home for several years until 2007, when renewed fighting forced him on the road again. UNHCR caught up with him when High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited North Kivu late last month to remind the world of the continuing suffering in DRC.
"It is necessary to support the Congolese people in this very difficult moment and to make sure that the Democratic Republic of the Congo can build a future of peace and prosperity," Guterres urged during a joint visit with World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran.
Mwabu and the others who returned to Kimoka found their homes destroyed. "It had turned back to bush," he explained, while adding that "the conflict was over and we were very happy to be back." The industrious and hard-working returnees wasted no time in rebuilding their village.
The area around Kimoka was one of the areas worst hit by fresh fighting in 2007-2008, but today villagers can be seen building, clearing and working the land. Everywhere, there are rows of newly constructed houses and huts, new businesses and freshly planted fields of cassava, beans and maize.
Mwabu had just returned from his farm and was putting the finishing touches to a two-room house for him and his wife. His four children are grown up and have moved to their own land. It took him several months to put up the frame and he was now working on the roof. "I hope to complete it soon and move in," he said.
But despite being back home and in a place of his own, he still faces major challenges, including those brought by nature. In January, the nearby volcano, Nyamulagira, erupted, raining down ash on his fields of crops. "It will be hard to survive," he said, looking at a pile of burnt beans outside his hut.
Another returnee to the area, 22-year-old Zawadi Balumi, faces different challenges. She went back to Sake village, near Kimoka, last year with her three children. But, unlike IDPs such as Mwabu, she has no land of her own.
Last month, health care workers in Sake discovered that her three-month-old baby was suffering from malnutrition and put the child on a special feeding programme funded by the World Food Programme. "Since he started taking the special supplement, his health has greatly improved," she told UNHCR, while adding that she was worried about the health of her other two children, who don't get enough to eat. "What can I do? I can't leave them hungry," she sighed.
Mozi Ngabo of Heal Africa, which runs the Sake health centre, said malnutrition was a growing problem in the area. The centre deals with up to 500 serious cases every month. The main cause is said to be the conflict and lack of access to land. "Their deteriorating health is due to the lack of nutritious diet. They don't get good food", said Dr Ngabo.
Clearly, vulnerable returnees such as Mwabu and Zawadi will continue to need assistance from the international community until they can become self-sufficient - a message driven home by Guterres and Sheeran during their visit. "The key is to consolidate peace, to promote reconciliation and to create the conditions for economic recovery," the High Commissioner said.
But while thousands of IDPs have returned to areas such as Kimoka, Sake and Katsiru, other parts of North Kivu remain dangerous, such as Nyanzale, some 60 kms south-west of Goma. Guterres and Sheeran also visited the village on the frontline between the Congolese army and the rebel Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan Hutu group which has been operating in eastern DRC since the mid-1990s.
IDPs told them of abuses committed by various militia groups, including widespread killing, rape, abduction, plunder and pillage. Many said their villages were within walking distance, but they could not return until the rebels left.
By Yusuf Hassan in Kimoka, Democratic Republic of the Congo