Security is improving in the eastern part of the country -- so why are many refugees worse off than before?
GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo — Maria crosses what is left of her legs and leans back against the wall of her UNHCR-issued tent. She is tall -- before she stepped on a land mine in 2008, she was probably close to six feet -- with dark, searching eyes and a chin that looks as if it were carved out of granite. She scarcely moves when she speaks. "Life was never easy here," she says, while her 4-year-old granddaughter bounces quietly beside her on a thin mattress. "But now it is impossible."
In April, she tells me, the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations' humanitarian relief arm focused on hunger, stopped issuing her food assistance: the 12 kg of maize, 1.5 liters of cooking oil, and 4 kilos of beans that once provided a monthly lifeline for everyone in the refugee camp where she lives. "Now I have nothing," Maria says, running her hand over the swollen nub that dangles below her right kneecap. "Sometimes the missionaries bring us something, but it's never enough."
Aid workers call this the camp of the vulnerable people. Baked, windswept, and sprawled over several acres of jagged volcanic rock, the Mugunga III settlement six miles west of Goma is home to roughly 10,000 Congolese who have been chewed up and spit out by two decades of near-constant fighting. There are women and children, and the occasional able-bodied young man, but most people over the age of 10 are like Maria: disabled, sick, or elderly. Many were relocated to flimsy tents here after nearby camps were closed down and their residents dispersed; those too frail or mangled to make the journey back to their home villages settled at Mugunga.
And now, almost all of them are hungry.
"The food assistance was cut off without any warning," explains Juhudi Muhira, the president of the camp's committee for disabled people. "Now less than 20 percent of people with disabilities are receiving anything." The rest, he says, are forced to beg, forage, or look for work in Goma -- a virtual impossibility for amputees and others with serious physical disabilities. "The reality is that these people are stuck. Nothing here is handicapped-accessible," Muhira says.
The situation in Mugunga strikes a dissonant chord with the emerging narrative about Congo. By many measures, things are actually better now in the country than at any point in the last two decades. Between 1996 and 2013, eastern Congo was the site of a devastating but largely invisible conflict that claimed the lives of roughly 5 million people, mostly from war-related starvation and disease. Rebel groups proliferated, and, at the height of the conflict, armies from nine different countries were fighting in eastern Congo. The human cost rivaled that of the great wars of the 20th century -- but the world scarcely batted an eye.
The region broke into the headlines briefly in 2012, when Goma, the provincial capital, fell to a rebel group known as the M23 while the U.N. mission in Congo, the largest peacekeeping operation anywhere in the world, stood by. Since then, the authorization of a special U.N. Force Intervention Brigade with an offensive mandate, heightened international engagement -- including the appointment of Russ Feingold and Mary Robinson as U.S. and U.N. envoys, respectively -- and a so-called "framework agreement" between Congo's government and its traditionally meddlesome neighbors have together improved the security situation dramatically. (Signed in February 2013, the agreement requires the Congolese government to carry out security-sector reform in exchange for pledges of noninterference by the other 10 signatories.)
While Congo is still very much at war -- just ask any of the inhabitants of Mugunga III, the vast majority of whom are too afraid to return home -- it appears to be moving in the direction of peace. The new Force Intervention Brigade, fighting alongside Congolese troops, routed the M23 last year and has started in on other armed groups, such as the Allied Democratic Forces. Meanwhile, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group that includes former soldiers and militiamen who participated in the Rwandan genocide, seems to be at least flirting with the idea of voluntary disarmament. "All in all," says human rights activist and former Clinton administration official John Prendergast, "the trend line in global engagement for peace in Congo and the Great Lakes is improving."
Positive macro-level trends, however, can feel very distant to those still caught in a daily struggle for survival. And for the residents of Mugunga, the improved security situation has actually made things worse.
After the defeat of M23, the U.N. began to implement a mission that involves projecting state authority into what are called "islands of stability" in remote areas recently cleared of armed groups. According to Christoph Vogel, a Congo-based researcher and a lecturer in African studies at the University of Cologne, this has meant a curtailing of funds for the WFP, as well as other large, donor-dependent nongovernmental organizations working with displaced populations in the eastern part of the country.
The "post-M23 political window-dressing," Vogel explains, led to food assistance being diverted away from camps in and around Goma, as "both the Congolese government and international stakeholders were interested to display a picture of complete peace and stability."
Marring that picture are the many thousands of white tents dotting the outskirts of the city. So incentivizing refugees to return home, in some cases even when the villages they had fled are not yet safe, has become a top priority for the Congolese government and international donors alike. According to Ayako Tsujisaka, until recently the project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) -- Doctors Without Borders -- in Mugunga, "More and more humanitarian aid is being oriented toward the areas of return, while less and less aid is being allocated into the displacement sites around Goma."
The reshuffling of priorities left the WFP with a $21 million funding shortfall, and in April, it was forced to move to targeted food provision -- that is, helping those people deemed most in need -- in camps for displaced persons and refugees. This despite the fact that 64 percent of families living in camps in the province of North Kivu, where Goma is located, are vulnerable to food insecurity, according to a joint assessment carried out in February and March by the WFP and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
"Food insecurity is widespread and increasing" in the country, concludes another report, published in May by WFP. (Overall, roughly 6.7 million Congolese live in a state of acute food insecurity.) Rates of hunger and malnutrition are climbing, according to the report, because of low social spending by the Congolese government, ongoing conflict, and declining foreign aid.
For roughly 10 percent of the country's population, the situation has reached a "humanitarian crisis level."
In the Mugunga camp, the desperation is palpable. Tired women rest among empty pots and water jugs. Children with distended bellies roam in search of distraction. "There is no hope," Muhira says. "No one has promised us food. Not for tomorrow and not for the next day."
The WFP is still providing food rations to the 30 percent of North Kivu's displaced people it has deemed most vulnerable. But many aid workers say the so-called vulnerability survey the WFP conducted before it shifted its strategy was far from foolproof. For instance, it did not reach many people with disabilities who, according to NGO workers in the camp, were never registered as residents of Mugunga in the first place because of mobility issues.
"The process was a bit of a mess," says Tsujisaka. "There are so many factors that can make people vulnerable ... but it was not clear how they arrived at the final determination."
A spokesman for the WFP, Djaounsede Madjiangar, disputes this notion, saying that handicapped people who are no longer receiving assistance have some other "coping mechanism." Yet he admits, "With the reduced level of funding, it is difficult to adequately respond to the needs of food-insecure people."
The outlook is increasingly grim for those with serious disabilities. The government wants them out of the camps as another step in closing the book on 20 years of war, but in a country that offers virtually no services for its disabled, the NGO-packed environs of Goma is one of the only places where it is possible to live with some dignity. There is no good data on the number of disabled people in Congo, but after such a long period of war, it is almost certainly higher than the 10 percent figure that is the norm in most societies. "You can see for yourself that it is way higher, not just because of weapons, but because of disease," says Aurélie Viard, a project manager for Handicap International in Goma.
Every day, more Congolese join the ranks of the disabled: Land mines, unexploded ordnance, and sporadic fighting are just a few of the drivers. In the first half of 2014 alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross's surgical team in North Kivu carried out 36 evacuations for war-wounded and completed more than 500 surgical procedures on 160 patients. It also furnished 60 new prostheses and 24 pairs of orthopedic braces to patients in Goma.
That said, without a reliable source of food, services such as physical therapy or fitting for a prosthetic limb are quickly becoming afterthoughts. "If people are starving," Viard says, "it is hard to work with them on their other needs."
Peacetime, such as it is, is shaping up to be a battle for Congo's disabled population. And in the dusty quadrants of Mugunga, it is a battle that will be difficult for the weary to wage. "I have fled home twice because of fighting," says Maria, extending a slender arm to reassure her granddaughter. "I am tired of all this. I just need a place to live and the means to survive."
PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images