11 Jun 13 28 Nov 16

Democratic Republic of Congo: “Life is dangerous, there is suffering”

Victorine and her family fled their home during four days of violent clashes in late May between the Congolese army and the M23 rebel group around the city of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Along with 4,500 others, she has taken refuge in Sotraki stadium, on the outskirts of the city.

A mother and her child in a displaced persons camp in Goma

Victorine has been sitting on the ground, in the same spot, for 24 hours. Slim and dressed in a dusty black T-shirt and skirt, she leans back against a fence while keeping a desultory eye on her four children, aged from two to ten. Like most people in Goma’s stadium, Victorine is exhausted. Many of those arriving have been on the move for several days; others have been hiding in schools and churches to escape the fighting.

Bombs and bullets

Victorine left her home village of Kibati, north of Goma, with her husband and four children.

“We heard bombing, we were scared,” she says. Bullets were flying and bombs were dropping on houses. A neighbour was killed by a stray bullet.

This was the third time since 2008 that the family had been forced to flee. The last time was just six months earlier, during the M23 attack on Goma in November 2012, when the family spent two weeks sheltering in a school as they waited for the fighting to die down.

On the frontline

In November the family survived unscathed, but not this time. As they fled, Victorine’s husband was killed in the chaos. Victorine and the children made it to a local school, where they hid for five days, before heading for Sotraki stadium. Their village is on the frontline of the fighting, and Victorine is preparing for a long wait before it is safe enough to return home.

Tensions have been high in the village of Kibati for several months. “Life is dangerous and there is suffering,” says Victorine, who grew soya and haricot beans in the fields outside the village to feed her family.

“When we want to go and work in the fields, there are rebels who harass us,” she says. Threats, extortion and rape were commonplace.

Basic needs and healthcare

An MSF mobile clinic at a displaced persons camp in DRC.

As she waits in the stadium for the situation to improve, Victorine's primary concern is to find food for her children. “If I had money,” she says, “I could buy food at the market.” All she managed to bring with her from home was a bundle of clothes.

The previous day, she brought two of her children to MSF’s mobile clinic, set up in a tent to provide basic healthcare to those sheltering in the stadium. Both children were sick with malnutrition and diarrhoea, most likely as a result of their poor living conditions since they left the village, with not enough food, no toilets and no clean water.

Last night, the family slept out in the open. “Right here,” says Victorine, pointing to the patch of dirt where she is sitting now.

Married at 13, widowed at 24

Victorine was married at 13, when her husband brought her from Rutshuru to Goma. Widowed at just 24, with four young children to care for, she believes her chances of remarrying are slim. “A potential husband would not love my children,” she says with a weary smile.

She is worried about the state of her fields, and her house – even if it has survived the bombs, it may have been ransacked. But most of all Victorine worries about how she will protect her children and help them to survive the difficult times ahead.

More than 100,000 people are currently sheltering in a number of camps for displaced people around Goma in eastern DRC’s North Kivu region. Médecins Sans Frontières is working in two of these camps: Bulengo and Mugunga 3. The teams are focusing on providing basic healthcare and vaccinations and preventing infectious diseases such as measles and cholera.  

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