Thousands of families who have opened their modest homes to fleeing strangers in the crisis-hit eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo are themselves facing the danger of having their meagre resources stretched to the limits - writes Anna Muinonen from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aid agencies warn that although these displaced persons do not appear to be immediately at risk of malnutrition and disease like those jammed into camps, they are weighing on the limited means of their host families, and feeling undignified for having to do so.
At a meeting in recent days with a pastor in the western suburb of Keshero outside of Goma, an assessment team from ACT International learned of the needs within the area. The pastor had compiled a list of host families with the numbers of people each was housing.
As many aid groups work to assist those in displaced person camps, members of ACT (Action by Churches Together) are working through church and local networks to identify needs and prioritise assistance for what they call the largely "invisible" displaced families and the increasingly vulnerable communities who are hosting them.
Initial plans for assistance include support for an estimated 60 000 people, as well as water and sanitation support for significantly more families.
The local pastor's list notes that Maria Buira's family had opened its doors to 18 people that had fled from Masisi. Among the people that she accommodated was her elderly mother along with a group from the same village.
Standing at the entrance of her small house in the midday sun, Buira said, "I couldn’t turn them away, but as they became too many, I started to look for other places for some of them to stay. My house is small, you see." She identified the owner of an unfinished brick building around the corner and convinced him to unlock the gate to allow additional displaced families to camp at the construction site.
At the unfinished doorstep of the skeleton of a brick house, three families shelter under the clumsily erected roof. Twagira, a 23-year-old mother of four children, was sitting on a pile of bricks, holding her six-month-old youngest child, who was born into displacement. Twagira and her husband had fled from their village of Tongo for the first time in January.
"We came all the way to Goma, because there was no security closer to our home village. By April we decided to return to at least try and cultivate our fields and produce a living … but had to flee again in July. Here in Goma we are at the mercy of others, there's no land to cultivate. My husband goes out in town every day and looks for little things to do here and there to get paid 200, 300 francs [less than 50 US cents] for doing small things for others," said Twagira.
In addition to poor shelter conditions for some families, the vulnerability of host communities is also increasing. With the arrival of those who fled, the need for firewood can double or triple for long periods of time and the surrounding environment is beginning to suffer from deforestation.
Twagira did complain once about their current living conditions at the construction site. When asked if they were uncomfortable, she said, "There are no latrines. When it rains the water comes inside. We do not have mats, we sleep on those rocks … We just want to go home."
Byamungu, an 18-year-old man who assisted the ACT team with their visit to the community, looked at children returning from school with envy. "I was in the third grade of secondary school back home," he said. "I did not run away under gun fire. I left because I heard the war was coming. And every time the war is coming, they come to the villages and recruit young boys by force. I did not want to become a fighter. I want to go back to school, but now I’m just concerned about helping out the family that is housing us here. I spend all day looking for small errands to do, to be able to bring at least something back to our host family at the end of the day."
Many of these displaced families have already fled twice in six months. An elderly couple, Papa Banzoa and Mama Pascaline, now staying at Maria's house, arrived in Goma after the latest fighting. Although the sounds of battle were not yet heard in their village of Munigi, the crowds fleeing towards Goma worried the old couple.
"We saw all these people running, running, so we decided to leave too. We are old and weak, so we just walked slowly until we reached Goma … By the time we got to the borders of the town, the crowd with whom we started to flee had dispersed here and there. We were among the last ones to reach Goma. These people kindly opened their home to us, we are just staying here for now," explained Banzoa, who is ill and has no means to get treatment.
As violence ensues, families continue to run for their lives leaving everything they had just rebuilt to be destroyed once more. Maria's mother, who had fled to Goma from Kitchanga earlier in 2008, said that she heard from other people from her village that her house had been looted and that there was little left. When asked whether she plans to return, she replied: "Let me ask you something: Is it over? Is there no more war? Why go back just to run again?"
Anna Muinonen is a programme coordinator based in DRC working for ACT member FinnChurchAid
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]