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Violence in eastern Congo has displaced millions. Some end up at this camp

The Nkamira Transit Center in western Rwanda is home to more than 6,000 refugees who fled violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
The Nkamira Transit Center in western Rwanda is home to more than 6,000 refugees who fled violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

RUBAVU DISTRICT, Rwanda — The first thing that we noticed at the Nkamira Transit Center was the fact that no matter where we looked, in any direction, there were children.

Kids laying on foam mattresses, stacked on the rocky ground. Kids peeking out in curiosity from behind one of the long, semi-permanent shelters where they live. Kids singing, loudly, inside a big structure where they attend school.

David Rusanjonga is the manager at the camp that sits on the Rwanda side of the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and said that roughly two-thirds of the population there were children under the age of 17. Many arrived without their parents.

"The children, they separated with their parents back in the DRC, they don't know where they are," Rusanjonga said. "They don't know whether they're alive or not. Sometimes, by chance, parents come later, they get unified."

More than one million people in the last two years have been forced to flee their homes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo due to worsening violence, and some end up here.

The Congolese army is fighting M23, a rebel group that's been operating in the region for more than a decade. The conflict is a legacy of the 1994 Rwandan genocide — which began 30 years ago this month — and the ethnic tensions that propelled it.

Children are a common sight in the Nkamira Transit Center.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Children are a common sight in the Nkamira Transit Center.
More than one million people have left their homes in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in the last two years due to worsening violence.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
More than one million people have left their homes in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo in the last two years due to worsening violence.

Today, that violence has altered life in the region. Aid groups, including the U.N. Refugee Agency, warn of a severe humanitarian crisis. And U.S. officials say the conflict has the potential to spill over into a fully fledged regional war.

Our visit to the Nkamira Transit Center offered a sense of what life is like now for people who flee eastern Congo and reach Rwanda.

When we arrived, the center was almost at capacity. More than 6,500 people were inside, seeking shelter and safety.

People at this camp live in semi-permanent shelters with what looks like corrugated metal roofs and doors, and walls made of white, plastic sheeting. Rusanjonga told us that the plastic was designed to last for six months. But some had been there for more than a year.

Nkamira Transit Center has faced budget cuts, and he said that means sometimes there's little to offer people when they arrive.

"Sometimes, not often, but sometimes we receive people without a blanket to offer," he said. "The majority of the people here have no mattresses. They sleep on mats on the floor, and this is a very rocky environment."

"So it's hard, and it's heartbreaking receiving such people without much to offer."

We walked through a part of the camp that houses the most recent arrivals.

Sylvie Migabo and her children fled Congo after her husband was killed in the fighting.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Sylvie Migabo and her children fled Congo after her husband was killed in the fighting.

In one long, makeshift shelter, we met Sylvie Migabo, a 27-year-old woman who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after her husband was killed.

She is from Masisi, in the North Kivu province of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Initially, she fled to Goma, the regional capital. But she said she was told that she might not be safe there, due to her family's ethnic ties.

"I'm much better here than where I was. At least it's peaceful," she told us through an interpreter. "I'm not afraid that someone can come and kill me."

Migabo has four children. The three older children peered around a door as we spoke, and her fourth, an infant, was strapped to her back.

"We are safe here," she said. "Even in the night, we are not afraid."

In the same, temporary structure, we met Yvette Kamariza, 38. As we spoke, it was raining, and she wrapped herself in a purple and yellow plaid blanket.

She and her six children fled on foot, she said, after soldiers came to her home and took her cows.

Kitchen workers fill dozens of brightly colored plastic buckets full of warm rice and maize at the Nkamira Transit Center.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Kitchen workers fill dozens of brightly colored plastic buckets full of warm rice and maize at the Nkamira Transit Center.
A market operates inside the center, servicing the thousands of refugees who currently call the place home.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
A market operates inside the center, servicing the thousands of refugees who currently call the place home.

"When they took the cows, I thought, 'It's over,'" she said, speaking through a translator. "Because next time, it won't be the cows. I thought they would come for me and my children."

Kamariza told us that she had no idea how long she'd be at the refugee camp, or where she might go next.

"I'm happy now that I'm here. I had a very good sleep last night, and I was also given food, a blanket and a mat to sleep on," she said. "And I don't hear the sound of bullets, or gunshots."

The challenges faced by the people who flee the violence in eastern Congo and come here, to the transit camp, are daunting, Rusanjonga said, their futures uncertain.

"Many of the people here, their houses back in DRC were burned, were destroyed. Even if it ends today, they have nowhere to go back anyway," he said. "If they go back, they have to start from zero."

Yvette Kamariza and her six children fled the DRC on foot after soldiers came to their home and took her cows.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Yvette Kamariza and her six children fled the DRC on foot after soldiers came to their home and took her cows.

And it's not just livelihoods that have been upended, Rusanjonga says there are emotional scars, too: "Some women here were raped. Some came pregnant after being raped by militia. It's these kinds of stories that I hear every day."

Despite the growing humanitarian need, there is little sign that the conflict will end soon, amid a recent upsurge in fighting between M23 rebels and the Congolese army in the mineral-rich region.

The United States and the U.N. have condemned Rwanda's support of M23, a group sanctioned by the U.S. government. Rwanda, though, denies any link — and the country's President, Paul Kagame, asserts his country's right to protect itself from regional violence.

And it's that violence that keeps people coming to the camp.

Rusanjonga told us that every time new refugees arrive from eastern Congo, workers do everything in their power to help care for them.

What they can't do, though, is change what's happening across the border, in eastern Congo. And that change, he said, will require an international response.

"This will require a collective responsibility, especially the international community. If they leave it to DRC alone or Rwanda alone, I don't expect much to be done," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.