GOMA, 15 November 2007 (IRIN) - People have been returning to camps for displaced people (IDPs) in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province after fresh fighting near the main town of Goma prompted up to 40,000 to flee.
Photo: Nicholai Lidow/IRIN
IDPs return to Mugunga IDP camp in North Kivu
Some IDPs said looters had ransacked their shelters while they were away, taking what little possessions they owned.
Panic spread through the camps on 13 November when the sound of heavy gunfire ricocheted through the mountains behind Mugunga, 15km outside Goma, where about 38,000 IDPs were housed. Another 2,000 people fled a third camp in Bulengo, 5km from Mugunga.
Andreas Cotjan, of the Norwegian Refugee Committee, which aids four camps outside Goma, said people immediately feared the worst. "Trauma is so fresh in people's minds. There was quite some panic at Mugunga I, which quickly spread to Mugunga II."
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), thousands of IDPs fled on foot towards Goma, where they either stayed with relatives or friends or slept rough in the jungle. Others arrived at Buhimba, an IDP camp set up in October.
UNHCR field safety advisor Pierre Nazroo described the scene as chaotic. "The main road was crowded with people; we had difficulties getting through," he said.
Lontine Nyirabade, an IDP who has been at Mugunga I since her husband was killed in clashes between government forces and dissident General Laurent Nkunda's rebel troops three months ago, said: "When I heard the fighting, I thought my family and I would be next."
The UN Mission in DRC, MONUC, said the attack targeted government forces in the village of Kishangazi, close to Mugunga, and was not a direct attack on civilians in the camps.
The Norwegian Refugee Council began re-registering people at Mugunga I and II late the next day.
Kayoga Bizimana said he returned to find all his possessions stolen. "Everything has been taken. There are no plates, saucepans, nothing. Even the tarpaulin covering the hut has been stolen."
Mutuka Manga told a similar story. "We slept in the jungle last night. There were mosquitoes everywhere and it was cold. Now we've come back to find everything has been stolen, even the door. I'm afraid to sleep here tonight," he said.
The mass exodus came at a time when NGOs and UN agencies had stepped up their joint efforts to curb the spread of cholera in the camps. Nearly 600 cases of the disease were reported in October and November.
Some of the IDPs being treated for cholera had fled the camps, sparking fears of further cholera outbreaks in the region.
"The upsurge of cholera is only one of the many symptoms of the worsening humanitarian tragedy in North Kivu," said UNHCR representative Eusebe Hounsokou.