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Another face of Bukavu: reaching DRC's Internally Displaced Persons

09 April, 2015 : 13:37



A 2012 report by UNHCR on the effects of IDPs on host families and host communities called for stronger commitment from the humanitarian community to assisting IDPs in hosting arrangements. But identifying who these people are in DRC is itself a practical challenge.

SLRC DRC PhD Researcher, Gloria Nguya

There are no Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Bukavu.’ I heard this many times during the initial stages of my PhD research on displacement in DRC. But how could this be? Armed conflict has resulted in the large-scale displacement of people in eastern Congo. According to OCHA, in September 2014 there were 618,326 displaced people in South Kivu. Nearly three-quarters live outside of camps and stay with host families. The population of Bukavu town has exploded, quadrupling in size to over 800,000 inhabitants in only 25 years.

Scenarios like this, where large numbers of IDPs need assistance outside of formal camps, have been the subject of growing attention. A 2012 report by UNHCR on the effects of IDPs on host families and host communities called for stronger commitment from the humanitarian community to assisting IDPs in hosting arrangements. But identifying who these people are is itself a practical challenge.

Having come close to cutting short my fieldwork in Bukavu, I connected with a local NGO named KAF, which offers basic services to IDPs, (paying school fees, provision of health services, provision of juridical assistance to war victims). A contact who used to work for them had suggested they could help me. I obtained authorisation to go into the field with them and I finally started to meet Bukavu’s IDPs. I then began to seek out other community organisations that might have contact with IDPs, such as local associations, churches and businesses. Having grown up in Kinshasa, I sometimes felt like a stranger in Bukavu myself, and I realised how important it was to identify locals who could offer some level of support. I figured this must be the same for IDPs.

Part of the problem in identifying IDPs in Bukavu, I discovered, was the terminology: all such newcomers are called ‘refugees’, be they Congolese or foreigners fleeing war in Rwanda and Uganda. Another problem was that, as soon as I started asking around about displaced people, everybody seemed to be one, and they would expect me to provide some form of assistance. It proved very important to identify myself straightaway as a student, not a humanitarian worker, but even then people would still expect something from me at the end of our conversation. I would always carry biscuits or sweets with me that I could give to children.

Life is hard for IDPs in Bukavu. In one case, I met seven families sharing a single five-roomed house in order to reduce the cost of rent and basic living expenses. I talked several times to one of the residents, Maman Leny, from Kalonge with her four children. She told me a pastor had offered her a place to stay at Karhale. ‘I’m living here with two other women and we are not paying any rent. Other women help me in case I don’t have soap or we share food when we are back at night.’  

Where they can get it, IDPs often do low-paid physical work such as carrying items in markets, housekeeping or construction work. Women are more economically vulnerable because they are often responsible for looking after the family. Those who do try to work can’t bear the idea of returning home unable to provide for their children, which makes them susceptible to exchanging sex for money or for food. One day, one of my respondents told me, ‘Maman Kasha [another woman IDP], she is not cool because she is receiving every night the husband of our friend Maman Nathalie.’ Maman Kasha is a widow living alone with her children. Gossip or reality? It was not clear to me. What is clear, however, is the social control and the tension that exist within a community of people who live so close to each other.

Life in Bukavu is a struggle for everyone in fact, not only for IDPs, and many residents do not seem to understand why their fellow Congolese have been displaced and feel a sense of injustice over the perceived level of support IDPs receive. ‘How come my neighbour can get all the attention while I’m just as poor?’ However, sometimes it works. In the neighbourhood of Ciriri, Maman Elise (IDP) and Maman Pascal (long-term resident of Bukavu) are friends and neighbours. They have children and husbands and they both do rodage (selling products carried on the head). They both rent houses of almost the same size. Even though Maman Pascal is a long-term resident, she is often in need of goods and borrows things from Maman Elise, such as salt, body lotion and flour.

Explicitly targeting IDPs with assistance is a sensitive issue, as IDPs may be exposed to attacks by urban poor people who have not been included in aid programming. One UNICEF emergency officer claimed humanitarian agencies stopped assisting IDPs in Bukavu in 2010, allegedly because they wanted to stop rural–urban migration, yet the population of Bukavu has continued to increase. This is in line with a claim made by an officer of the provincial Division of Gender, who said there were no services and activities directed towards urban poor women to avoid encouraging a ‘rural exodus’.

But the economic, social and psychological pressures of urban life mean IDPs in Bukavu need as much attention as those living in rural areas. A way around this issue is to target urban poor women with a particular focus on female IDPs. This approach is used by some of the smaller local NGOs and some INGOs, and has succeeded in improving IDPs’ living conditions and reducing their impact on host communities while at the same time being more inclusive. Maman Shabadeux is an IDP from Nindja living in a Bukavu suburb with her husband and seven children. She explained to me how she learnt about training through somebody going around the neighbourhood with a megaphone. She decided to attend a training course, provided by Women for Women, and learnt how to bake cakes and donuts. She now sells her home-baked products in a small shop behind her house.

To me, the approach used by some (I)NGOs, such as Women for Women and KAF, is a good way to provide support to IDPs in Bukavu: instead of targeting only IDPs, they have a more encompassing focus on the urban poor. By targeting a larger group, they avoid jealousy among the ‘normal’ urban poor. In setting up interventions in urban areas, it is important not to forget poverty is rife, not only among IDPs but also among the population at large. Increasing interventions in urban areas might help create a more stable and secure environment for everyone.

N.B: Names used in this blog have been anonymised.

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Welcome to SLRC's blog.

This blog will feature reflections from our team of researchers on the practicalities of actually conducting research in conflict-affected situations. We will also be posting guest blogs written by key researchers and practioners working on livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations.