Local Voices – Masisi, The Wound of Kivu

This is the first story in our Local Voices – Congolese Communities & The Kivu Conflict series. The next story will be published on 12 December 2013.

Torn apart by 20 years of bloody conflict, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most violence-stricken parts of the world. In a region with colossal economic potential, many armed groups without specific goals regularly engage in fighting with devastating consequences for the local populations.

The armed conflict in the Kivus is extremely complex and made up of a mix of regional politics, anarchic exploitation of mineral wealth, ethnic rivalries, land conflicts, weakness of the state and political opportunism. A seemingly infinite maze in which the territory of Masisi, North Kivu, occupies a central place. While the recent dismantling of the M23 rebel group opens a new window of opportunity for peace, many deep-rooted challenges remain of great concern.

Widuhaye, a 10-year-old displaced girl in front of Katale IDP camp. Masisi territory, North Kivu, July 2013.

A paradise without armed groups

“Without the armed groups, Masisi would be a real paradise!”, Joseph Sukisa, deputy administrator of the Masisi territory in charge of economy and development stated. “We have everything here! Fields, pastures, minerals! Our lands are very fertile!”

Despite its peaceful mountainous and green landscapes with economic potential, Masisi has been the scene of a deadly armed conflict for 20 years, which has resulted in colossal humanitarian consequences. United Nations agencies speak of some 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the territory of Masisi alone, out of a total of two million IDPs in North and South Kivu, the two provinces most affected by the war in DRC.

This young boy is walking with a plastic bag with cigarettes that he sells one by one in order to help his parents pay for his school fees. In Masisi, poverty is widespread and families can hardly afford basic needs such as medical care or education.

Ten years after the signing of the Sun City peace agreement (2003), seven years after the first democratic elections (2006), which ought to have ushered in a new era of peace and prosperity for the country, the east of DRC remains prisoner to an endless cycle of wars. FDLR, APCLS, Nyatura, FDDH, Mai-Mai Cheka, Guides, MAC... So many abbreviations for the many armed groups that continue to clash in Masisi and its surroundings.

The reasons for this violence?

They are as numerous and complex as the participating armed groups. Joseph, the deputy administrator of Masisi, gives us his point of view on the continuation of the war in his country:

“If armed groups continue to exist in Masisi, this is not because of tribalism, but because of the M23 which, with the support of Rwanda, seeks to balkanize our country” he said. “But the children of Congo are hard-working and cannot accept this balkanization. That is why they continue to create armed groups!” he adds without flinching.

A young IDP girl with her brother in her arms. Behind her, down the hill, the IDP camp of Lushebere. Masisi territory, North Kivu, September 2013.

This discourse of ‘balkanization’ of Congo by external forces remains widespread in Kivu and in the territory of Masisi in particular. It is based on the existence of the M23 until November 2013, and before that of the CNDP and RCD, three successive rebel movements evolving in eastern Congo since 1998 and who have, according to many reports by the United Nations, received broad support from neighboring countries, in particular from Rwanda and Uganda. But it is also a political discourse that oversimplifies the profound and multiple causes of the armed conflicts and masks internal problems in Congo.

Young members of APCLS armed group, the People's Alliance for a Free and Sovereign Congo, in their military camp in Lukweti. They are just coming back from military operations in Pinga, Walikale territory, against elements from Cheka armed group. Lukweti, Masisi territory, August 2013.

For this reason, a leader of the Tutsi community based in Goma condemns in strong terms a discourse that he considers manipulative:

“Pointing the finger at Rwanda is a way to distract the people!” he tells us. “The discourse of balkanization serves the interests of the politicians in power. It allows them to divert attention away from the real issues, namely the lack of good governance and the incompetence of the authorities.”

This woman and her two kids stand on the remains of their home in the village of Tunda, that has been destroyed in November 2012 during fighting between armed groups. Eight months later, inhabitants from Tunda are coming back to their village in order to rebuild their homes, but still live in nearby Katale IDP camp. Tunda, Masisi territory, July 2013.

Sixty kilometers north from Goma, in Masisi, Hutu women displaced by war will tell us exactly the same:

“What brings armed groups here? It is the weakness and the incompetence of the government! It’s our MPs themselves who stir up our youths, who organize them and distribute weapons among them! It’s the people in power who create these armed groups!” the women exclaim, disgusted by what the candidates for whom they voted for in the last elections in November 2011 are doing.

Mama Mirimo had to flee her village because of fightings between APCLS and Cheka groups. She took refuge in an IDP camp in Nyabiondo. One of her sons recently died from disease in the camp. Access to medical care remains problematic in the area, although several humanitarian agencies intervene in the health sector. Nyabiondo, Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

The discourse of balkanization today continues to reflect the real or imagined fears and feelings of insecurity (physical insecurity as well as economic and political insecurity) of a large part of the population in Masisi and Kivu. Masisi is indeed the center of a particularly sensitive issue, namely the return of the Congolese Tutsi (but also Hutu) refugees who, having fled the war and ethnic violence that began in Masisi in 1993, remain in Rwanda and Uganda to this day and now have to (or at least a large part of them) go back to Masisi.

However, many people from other ethnic communities in Masisi are not really in favor of these returns, accusing the refugees of stealing their lands. For that reason, they question the nationality of a large number of refugees (70,000, according to UNHCR).

Wyduhaye, a 10-year-old displaced girl, and her grandma in their shelter. Katale IDP camp, Masisi territory, North Kivu, July 2013

To understand this, one should know that land abandoned or cheaply sold by refugees when they fled has often been occupied by those who remained in Masisi. The ‘new’ occupants who have sometimes exploited the land for 20 years now consider themselves as the rightful owners and often have no intention of returning it. Moreover, in a context where politics are strongly influenced by ethnicity, the arrival of thousands of Hutu and Tutsi electors in Masisi doesn’t serve the interests of the Hundu community. In such a context, the return of the refugees, if poorly managed, can be a real ‘time bomb’ for the peace process in Kivu.

A woman walks in front of an IDP camp, Lushebere, Masisi territory, September 2013.

The return of refugees also depends on another factor that obstructs the end of armed conflicts in Kivu: the dismantling of the FDLR, the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda. These Rwandan Hutu rebels arrived in Kivu in 1994 and many of them have actively participated in carrying out the genocides (especially those in the higher ranks). The Congolese Tutsi refugees won’t ever be able to return without fearing for their safety as long as the FDLR is still there.

A member of APCLS armed group, on the road between Nyabiondo and Lukweti. Masisi territory, North Kivu, August 2013.

While these two particularly complex problems were never met with complete and satisfactory solutions, some armed groups have used them to make claims of their own. This only heats the discussion on these topics and diminishes the likelihood of finding a solution that all parties involved can agree on. For example, the M23 rebel group, a month before being defeated militarily by the national army, posed as its main condition for disarmament the repatriation of the refugees and the dismantling of the FDLR.

A young female merchant set up her small shop just below a military camp of the national army in Katale. The camp is empty, as Congolese soldiers have left for Goma and Nyiragongo territory in order to fight with M23 rebels. Katale, Masisi territory, July 2013.

Although the military dismantling of the M23 in October constitutes a victory without precedent for the proponents of the discourse of balkanization, it should not ignore the many profound challenges that remain both on the internal level (local and national) and on the external level. In Congo, armed groups are also the result of a corrupt and failed political system that, under the cover of democracy and multi-party elections, hardly try to cover predatory, brutal and violent dynamics. This system did not just pop out of the blue. It is rooted in a long, complex and tortuous history, dating back at least to the Belgian colonial era, if not further.


Adopting the voice of the local actors does not mean that International Alert, Local Voices or Search For Common Ground endorse their views or defend their 'cause'. Instead we seek to communicate the fears, beliefs and wishes of local people in order to contribute to the search for sustainable peace-building solutions.

Text and photographs: Alexis Bouvy.
Facilitation in the field: Crispin Mvano and Rodolpe Mukundi.

For more information on the context of armed conflicts in North Kivu, see Jason Stearns (2012), North Kivu. The Background to Conflict in North Kivu, Usalama Project, Rift Valley Institute, Nairobi.

For a critical perspective on the peace efforts carried out or supported by the Congolese authorities and international actors, see International Alert's report Ending the Deadlock. Towards a New Vision of Peace in Eastern DRC (2012)

On negative discourses and stereotypes in DRC, see International Alert’s report Words That Kill. Rumours, Prejudice, Stereotypes and Myths Amongst the People of the Great Lakes Region of Africa (2009)

Local Voices – Congolese Communities & The Kivu Conflict enjoys the support of International Alert and Search for Common Ground.

© Local Voices 2013 with International Alert & Search For Common Ground