Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in North Kivu Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are reluctant to go back to their villages for fear of attacks despite a truce signed in January between the government and various armed groups.
"We fled our house because [armed groups] were attacking and raping people and looting property," said Gina Kavira, 38, who fled with her husband and eight children from the village of Bambou five months ago and who has been living with a host family in three cramped rooms in Vitshumbi on the shores of Lake Edward.
"There is not enough to eat here. I try and catch fish. Normally, I catch three in a day. I sell two and feed my family on the other," she told IRIN. "My children can’t go to school because we can’t afford school fees. I’d like to return home if there was peace and if I could afford the transport. All we want is peace. I don’t know when we will be able to return."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will build a new shelter on a 54-hectare site near the town of Rutshuru to alleviate congestion in other IDP camps. UNHCR senior field officer Marie-Antoinette Okimba said the camp will cater for an estimated 16,000 people.
The new camp at Nahanga is intended to relieve pressure on communities in the towns of Rutshuru and Kiwanja, which have hosted 65,000 IDPs since October 2007.
According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), 70 percent of IDPs in North Kivu live with host families, while only 30 percent actually live in formal IDP camps.
Many displaced people are also occupying communal spaces, such as churches, village halls and classrooms.
"In the beginning it is very easy for host communities to look after newly-arrived IDPs, but after a few months it causes big problems," said Okimba. "To provide food and shelter after long periods becomes very difficult."
The ceasefire agreement, signed on 23 January in the North Kivu capital Goma, called for an immediate cessation of hostilities, disengagement of troops and the creation of a buffer zone.
Parties to the pact include the government and armed groups such as the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), headed by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, as well as traditional warriors of shifting alliances generically referred to as Mayi Mayi.
A Hutu-dominated armed group many of whose members fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), has also been party to the conflict in eastern DRC. However, it was not included in the January agreement because it is considered one of the foreign armed groups in DRC, which should be dealt with according to the provisions of a separate agreement signed in Nairobi in November 2007. Under this deal the FDLR should be disarmed and its members repatriated to Rwanda.
According to Venetia Holland, a civilian official of the UN Mission in Congo (MONUC), despite the nominal ceasefire agreement, incidents of extortion, sexual violence, lootings, abduction, forced labour, killings and even alleged massacres continue to be perpetrated by both elements believed to be members of FDLR and some signatories of the Goma accord.
Okimba said that some civilians had tried to return home only to become victims of the violence.
"In the beginning of March many IDPs in the Rutshuru region tried to return to their homes, but they are coming back to the safety of the camps saying that [troops loyal to Nkunda] are accusing them of aiding and helping other troops," she said.
Civilians have often been caught between rival forces and accused of complicity with the "opposition" by the various rival groups.
Around Rutshuru, the IDP camps of Kasasa and Nyongera, which cater for a combined population of 13,000, are heavily overcrowded, sparking fears of an imminent cholera outbreak.
Elinor Raikes, the Rapid Response Mechanism Coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, said: "The situation in the camps is very precarious. Both camps are completely saturated and unless a solution is found quickly then there’s a very high risk of public health problems like cholera."
In Kasasa, 60 people share each latrine; a figure that is three times the recommended standard of 20 people per latrine, according to Raikes.
Commissions set up to outline the implementation modalities of the Goma deal, which are chaired by the government and include representatives from all the signatory armed groups, are expected to begin their work before the end of March.
Holland, however, said it is unlikely that the protection situation will improve significantly, or that there will be any mass return and reintegration of IDPs until civilians witness a real military withdrawal on the ground.