Sunday, June 16, 2024

Women of North Kivu: “Peace must return”


Over the past two years, more than one million people have fled ongoing fighting in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). More than half of them have sought refuge near the provincial capital of Goma, where many live in inhumane conditions in makeshift camps lacking decent shelter, water, food, health care, and protection from violence, including sexual assault.

Kanyaruchinya, north of Goma, is one of the largest camps in the region. The camp initially hosted people affected by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in May 2021, before people started fleeing fighting in Rutshuru territory. At the end of October 2022, the population of Kanyaruchinya tripled in a matter of days. Today, around 200,000 people are still living there in appalling conditions, in shelters made of tree branches and plastic sheeting. As in most places around Goma, there is a shocking lack of humanitarian aid.

Anyone entering this vast camp is struck by the number of women running around trying to make a living for themselves and their families—collecting and selling wood, sewing clothes, or trying to cultivate the tiny available plots of land to maintain a modicum of dignity. Thousands of them are raising children, often alone, and doing their best to feed them—sometimes at the cost of their own safety, as sexual violence has rapidly turned into another epidemic in camps including Kanyaruchinya, in addition to cholera and measles.

To help the people of Kanyaruchinya, MSF has been running the local health center since July 2022. Every day, the small facility receives about 250 patients in need of primary health care, while the maternity ward helps a dozen women give birth every day—nearly 3,300 in 2023. 

Our patients include the women featured in this photo story. Their testimonies, collected in January 2024, reveal their resilience in the face of multiple displacements, their strength to maintain hope despite harsh living conditions, and their fears for the future.


Fatherless and motherless, Alice, 19, and her younger brothers fled Buhumba, in Nyiragongo territory, as fighting reached their village.

“When we saw people fleeing, we got scared and sneaked through the crowd to the Bugere camp near Saké [about 15 miles west of Goma],” she said.

To earn some money for herself and her brothers, Alice set up a small drink shop on the road in Bugere. It was there that she met Elie, who also fled Buhumba, and together they moved to Kanyaruchinya in February 2023. Ten months later, the couple has a daughter, Rehema Alliance, who was born at the MSF clinic. 

“Despite the conditions here, my pregnancy went well,” she said as she looked at a photo album, the only keepsake she brought from Buhumba. “I was well looked after at the health center. We got all the medicines we needed, and the advice and care was free.”

But today Alice is worried about having a child in the camp. “Her future is not safe. Armed bandits break into the shelters and ask us for money. If you don’t have money, you run the risk of being killed.”

To support the family, Elie takes on a variety of odd jobs: motorcycle taxi driver, hairdresser, transporting wooden planks, and other trades. “It’s not enough to earn a decent income, and it’s hard for us to find enough to eat,” he said. “In these conditions, having your first child is a bit sad. We live in a shelter where the water [soaks us] when it rains and it’s stifling when the sun shines.” 

Despite all the difficulties Alice and Elie are going through, “the arrival of this child is a blessing,” said Alice. “I can only be happy, and she can only be happy. But we must be able to return to the village when peace is restored. When I receive news from my village, those who have stayed tell us that they are suffering even more than we are, because they have no humanitarian aid and the fighters are destroying the fields. Peace must return.”


Originally from Kiwanja in Rutshuru territory, Francine, 24, arrived at Kanyaruchinya camp in October 2022. 

“I fled by motorbike with my grandparents to Rugari, but we had no money to pay for the rest of the journey, so we walked here for days and nights without eating,” she said. 

This is the third time since 2006 that Francine has been forced to flee because of fighting in her hometown. “Each time you have to start your life all over again,” she said. In order to survive, she and her husband Jean-de-Dieu have set up a small business in the camp, but they have gone into debt and the money they earn only allows them to eat once a day—a particular challenge for Francine, who is breastfeeding after giving birth just three months ago in the MSF maternity facility. She came back to have her baby vaccinated.

“Sometimes you lose your head and get totally discouraged,” she said. “My pregnancy was a time of extreme suffering. Being pregnant and sleeping on leaves under a tarpaulin is impossible.  And now, at the rate things are going, I’m very worried that my baby will soon suffer from malnutrition. It’s very hard to find joy here.”

In addition to the extreme living conditions on the site, the violence in the camp is a further source of concern for Francine, who thought she was safe from the armed men. “The sound of bullets is common in the camp, day and night,” she said.  “I sometimes wonder what the difference is between here and the village I fled, between the occupied zones and this camp?”


Jeanne, 64, was forced to flee Rugari, Rutshuru territory, when the fighting broke out and sought refuge in Kanyaruchinya camp. It was the second time she had to flee violence in Rutshuru.

“I have lost everything,” she said in the tiny shelter made of branches and plastic where she has lived “for four potato harvests.” Too old to help in the fields, she now relies on the solidarity of other displaced people to survive. But given the conditions in the camp, she goes days without eating.

“Of my eight children, only one has survived the disease and violence,” she said. “She is eight months pregnant and I am very afraid for her because she has to work in the fields and carry planks to get by.”

Jeanne’s daughter Aimée could not stay in Kanyaruchinya because of the living conditions in the camp. “I had to move to Kibati, two kilometers [approximately one mile] away, to stay in my husband’s wooden hut because the doctors told me that, given my pregnancy, I could no longer sleep on the stones on the ground. This is the first time I’ve experienced pregnancy in these conditions and I’m very worried about my daughter’s future.”

Jeanne now lives alone in the camp. “I hope that my daughter and granddaughter will have a better future. Today I have no choice but to hope. My biggest dream is to return home when peace is restored. I’m relying on God. He is the only one who can bring lasting peace.”


Gisèle, 18, fled with her parents from the village of Rugari, Rutshuru territory, in November 2022

“We walked for three weeks before arriving here,” she said in early January 2024, a day after giving birth in the small maternity unit run by MSF in Kanyaruchinya camp.

Today, Gisèle lives in a shelter next to her parents. But the father of her child is not there.

“I didn’t know him,” she said. “He is a government official. Every day I tried to get a card to get humanitarian aid, but I couldn’t get it. He saw me and said he could get me one if I came with him one evening. So I went.”

When Gisèle told him she was pregnant, the man told her he would marry her “when the war is over” and take care of the child when it turned six years old. In the meantime, he helps out a little by buying diapers and lotions for the baby.

“I want her to study a lot, to work and to be independent,” Gisèle said.

Today, despite the daily difficulties, Gisèle feels safe because her tent is next to her parents’, although her mother, Espérance, says that “almost every night, there are bullets crackling.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Médecins sans frontières (MSF).

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