Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Denis Sebwage Rugemba sits on the side of a road running through Bushagara camp on the outskirts of the Congolese city of Goma, surrounded by the sparse belongings of others like him who have fled their homes.
There is a garishly orange t-shirt; a quilted jacket; a brightly coloured skirt. The sun fiercely refracts through white plastic tents; the heat is blistering but there is no shade.
But Rugemba, 78, is impervious to the environment as he pulls away loose strings and mends holes, continuing in exile a job he has practised for fifty years. The more clothes he repairs, the better chance he has of earning a little money; of buying food.
He is among some 240,000 people sheltered in various camps – including Bushagara – around Goma, seeking refuge from the M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. They represent just a third of the civilians who have been uprooted since the M23 rebel group, which was previously active 10 years ago, re-emerged in late 2021.
According to the Kivu Security Tracker, which monitors attacks in eastern DRC where there are more than 120 armed groups, some 296 people have been killed in clashes with the group since October 2021.
Neighbouring Rwanda has been accused of supporting the group by a United Nations group of experts, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the DRC government in Kinshasa, but Kigali and the rebels themselves have vigorously denied the accusations.
Nonetheless, allegations of Rwandan support for M23 have spurred regional tensions, with DRC President Felix Tshisekedi calling for sanctions against Kigali in March.
Meanwhile, the militia currently controls a swath of territory encircling Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu as Congolese troops, aided by a regional force that excludes Rwanda, takes them on.
For Rebecca Kabuo, a youth activist with Lutte pour le Changement (Fight for Change) or LUCHA, it is crucial to remember the dignity of people affected by the continuing conflict.
“Consider the dead and not just the numbers,” she told Al Jazeera. “These are people, they are human beings.”
‘Going back in circles’
For those caught in the conflict, displacement has become a repeat experience.
In 2006, Rugemba first fled his home in Rutshuru district, 68km (42 miles) north of Goma amid fighting between the DRC military and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a group of rebel fighters claiming to protect Congo’s Tutsi population.
Twenty-five of his relatives were killed. The others took shelter in a displacement camp, not far from where Rugemba stays now, and tried to make a life there.
His eldest child got married while waiting to return home. Friends made food and contributed money to buy beer. “At least it was a wedding,” he told Al Jazeera.
His mother died of illness in old age and was buried in the surrounding hills. By 2009, CNDP was integrated into the national army, so he returned to his village.
But the peace did not hold.
Unhappy with their position in the Congolese military, and claiming that government agreements had not been honoured, ex-CNDP operatives launched the first M23 rebellion in April 2012. They took their name from March 23, the date the treaty had been signed.
Rugemba was at home during that war, lying on the floor of his wooden house to stay safe from gunfire. His recollections of different battles have merged and become hazy in the intervening years, but one memory lingers: fear. He worries about his blood pressure and says he is startled by loud noises.
During the 2012 uprising, the M23 rebels advanced as far as Goma, parading past UN peacekeepers on their march into the city which they held for 10 days. The 20-month revolt came to an end in November 2013, as the army, reinforced by the UN, captured the last of M23’s fiefdoms and the remaining rebels announced their intentions to finally stand down.
Again, Rugemba began to rebuild his life by tending to his fields and planting maize, beans and banana plants.
Life was calm for a while, but the M23 returned in late 2021 as a result of the same longstanding historical tensions that had fostered earlier rebellions, according to Onesphore Sematumba, analyst for the Great Lakes with the Crisis Group.
“They are still practically using the same discourse,” said Sematumba of the rebels, comparing current fighters with their predecessors in the first M23 rebellion and to CNDP combatants. “For all these years, we are going back in circles.”
Sematumba suggested that Rwandan support for the group may have been a response to competition between the countries in the region.
The latest M23 rebellion kicked off in the same month that Tshisekedi signed a deal with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, allowing troops from Kampala to fight the Allied Democratic Forces in DRC’s Beni, while also permitting Uganda to construct new roads in the region.
“All these deals did not involve Rwanda,” said Sematumba. “[President] Kagame got very angry about that.”
Life on the run
The rebels arrived in Rugemba’s village in Rutshuru late last year.
“There [was] shooting everywhere,” he said. This time, four of his relatives died in the gunfire. In the rush to leave, he was able to save only his sewing machine. He carried it for the two-day trek to Goma along a road crowded with other people on the move.
The tailor was exhausted and starving upon reaching the city, with feet so swollen that he struggled to move. Now, hunger has become a constant worry.
“Life here is very difficult,” Rugemba said. “There is not enough food, because we are so many displaced.”
Elizabeth Kanyeshamba, 30, first fled the M23 rebels more than a decade ago, when they attacked her village in Masisi territory. She spent two years in a displacement site with her husband and children, before returning home to a tentative calm.
“We could farm,” she said of that time. “Other people had their businesses and small shops.”
But a resurgent M23 captured their village in February.
Kanyeshamba fled into the hills with her youngest daughter, losing her husband and other children in the chaos. She moved from mountain town to mountain town, only reaching a displacement site on the western edge of Goma after a week of walking.
In the camp, built between sharp outcroppings of rock, she was reunited with her husband and children. “It was like a miracle,” she said. “Everyone was thinking that the other had died.”
But happiness was tempered by tragedy as she learned that her mother had been killed trying to escape. “It is sad,” she said bluntly. “We feel very bad and very sorry to be running from the same people again.”
Peace talks, but no peace
Anger is rising in the camp where Kanyeshamba lives, and in Goma.
Much fury has been directed at the United Nations peacekeeping mission, or MONUSCO, which has operated in the DRC for 20 years. Last year, protests demanding its removal for failing to keep the peace turned deadly, when 50 demonstrators were injured and five killed.
Troops from an East African Community force have managed to secure territories previously held by M23 in North Kivu, but have also inspired little confidence.
In May, the Kenyan head of the mission abruptly quit, citing threats to his safety in a resignation letter that circulated on social media; the Kenyan army claimed the letter was fake and that he had merely been reassigned to a domestic role.
Not long afterwards, Tshisekedi, in a speech in Botswana, accused the East African troops of working with M23, while welcoming the planned deployment of a replacement force from southern Africa.
Peace talks in Nairobi in December excluded M23, while armed groups in attendance criticised the presence of foreign fighters. At the time, M23 separately signalled its willingness to stand down but still holds territory in Bunagana after announcing a withdrawal from Rutshuru in April.
“How can we achieve a sustainable and serious response when the most threatening group, the M23, is not part of this process?” asked Sematumba, the analyst.
Rugemba simply wants to go home. “We hear there are peace talks, but there is no result,” he told Al Jazeera. “We need peace so we can go back.”
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