Democratic Republic of Congo

As Armed Factions Fight Over Land in DRC, Displaced People Use Machetes to Sow Peace

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, people fleeing armed conflict generally rely on food aid. Fresh produce is a cherished rarity. Internally displaced persons who work shoulder to shoulder cultivating vegetables say their efforts contribute to peace as well as good nutrition.

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As Armed Factions Fight Over Land in DRC, Displaced People Use Machetes to Sow Peace

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KITCHANGA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — In the swamps of Kageyo, just 2 meters (6.5 feet) from the Mungote Internally Displaced People camp, men and women wield axes and machetes.

While swinging their sharp tools into the earth, they sing religious hymns in Kihunde and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by tribes here in the North Kivu province of DRC.

Notorious for feuds and unending violence, refugees, internally displaced people and locals from food-insecure households work together, tilling the swampy soil to produce their food – and to restore peace and economic security to the community.

Alice Bahati sings as she works, cultivating cabbage on a small plot of swamp land near the IDP camp she now calls home.

Seven years ago, armed conflict in her home village of Bibwe forced Bahati to flee to Kitchanga, a town that is home to three IDP camps. When she arrived, she says, good Samaritans with the local food-for-work program took in her family and offered her a plot of land where she could grow cabbage.

“I have been internally displaced as a result of war for seven years now, but with this field I am now stable and self-reliant,” she says.

Bahati, 37, is a mother of five. Her husband was killed during the war between the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known by the acronym FARDC, and militias of the Alliance of Patriots for a Free and Sovereign Congo, APCLS, in the neighboring city of Masisi.

Bahati’s story is not unusual. Thousands of IDPs have sought refuge in Kitchanga and its neighboring camps for two decades.

But rather than rely on the staples provided by aid programs – primarily cornmeal, beans and oil – some camp and Kitchanga residents are taking to the earth to grow their own crops.

In response to the precarious humanitarian situation of war-displaced people here, the United Nations World Food Program, WFP, in collaboration with a local organization, Community Development Support Program, or PADEC, recently launched a program called Food Assistance for Assets. The program provides support for more than 48,000 vulnerable households, including displaced persons, returnees and food-insecure households in Kitchanga.

In addition to boosting nutrition, the program provides increased wages when crops are sold in town. Some say trading vegetables and working together in the fields is even fostering peace, as many of the farmworkers are of different – and often feuding – tribes.

Armed groups and militias remain active in the Masisi Territory of DRC’s North Kivu province. Since the Second Congo War began in 1998, this area has seen violence among various warring factions, including the Congolese army, militia groups, Hutu and Tutsi factions, and other mai-mai rebel groups that fight over resources here.

In recent months, property looting and attacks on civilians have increased. These episodes of violence have sparked new waves of displacement, leading thousands of people into the Mungote, Mugunga and Mugote IDP camps in North Kivu. Because of armed conflict in the eastern part of the country, there are 2.7 million internally displaced people in DRC, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

For the new stream of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, survival is a challenge. IDPs must walk night and day through insecure areas, constantly facing the threat of violence or abduction.

And once they reach the camps or the city of Kitchanga, a base for U.N. aid workers, basic necessities and work opportunities can be hard to come by. WFP provides ration packs that include cornmeal, beans, vegetable oil and iodized salt; fresh food is a rarity.

Jacques David, a communication officer for WFP, says the food assistance program gives vulnerable people a livelihood as well as an opportunity to obtain fresh food.

PADEC’s community development support program aims to engage 1,000 local households, including IDPs and other food-insecure families, over the next 10 months, coordinator Simeon Bitahwa says.

In February 2015, Food Assistance for Assets launched a five-month phase of work, which aims to engage 500 beneficiary households in cultivating 40 hectares (98 acres) of land.

In the second phase, the program will aim to engage another 500 beneficiary households to cultivate another 40 hectares.

As Bahati works, she explains that she cannot return home because armed groups are still active in her community.

She and her five children have been living in the Mungote IDP camp, west of Kitchanga, for three years. Before she received land from the program, she says, finding work as a housekeeper was hard.

“My beginnings were difficult,” she says. “Local populations could in no way trust IDPs. When one has no means of livelihood, they are forced to beg, steal and do housework to support their family.”

She says the opportunity to grow cabbage with her 16-year-old son has helped pass the time – and has improved her standard of living. The two have cultivated more than 500 cabbages in just three months.

She traded 100 of those cabbages with other Food Assistance for Assets participants in exchange for potatoes, cauliflower, corn flour and other foodstuffs. She took the other 400 cabbages to the local market in Kitchanga, where she earned 90,000 Congolese francs ($97).

“This community field is genuinely beneficial for me and for my family,” she says, ax in hand as she tends to her cabbage, her youngest child tied to her back with a colorful kitenge. “I can afford to pay school fees for my five children. This field enables me to lead the same quality of life I could enjoy in my home village. Today I am self-reliant.”

Engaging IDPs in vegetable farming is ideal, says Bigirima Djafete, an agronomist who studies the use of plants for fuel.

“The swamps are best suited for growing vegetables,” he says. “There is no need to wait for the rainy season to plant because they enable crops to be grown throughout the year. Here we even produce a cabbage weighing seven kilograms!”

Alain Muhaya was forced to leave his war-torn village of Lubero seven years ago.

“Today, like other displaced persons, I benefit from the food for work program,” Muhaya says cheerfully. “I grow on my land everything I want.”

Muhaya has produced 15 bags of sweet potatoes.

Bitahwa, who oversees Food Assistance for Assets, says the program will improve cohesion among conflict-stricken communities.

To date, 70 percent of the beneficiary families are from the Mungote IDP camp. The remaining 30 percent live in Kitchanga.

To promote peaceful coexistence, the program draws beneficiaries from all communities of the region, Bitahwa says.

But some IDPs suggest that the program targets IDPs from only some communities and excludes newer residents.

Abibu Muhoza arrived at the Mungote camp last month. In that month, he says, he has received no humanitarian assistance and has been given no land for cultivation.

“I came here from Misau to save my life,” he says. “I need it to be able to feed my children.”

In response, a WFP spokesperson says food rations will soon be distributed to IDPs. The latest wave of IDPs was larger than expected.

Officials within Mungote IDP camp agree the Food Assistance for Assets program should scale up faster.

Bizimana Joseph Ruhetesha, spokesman of Mungote IDP camp, says 80 hectares of swamp land is insufficient to support all the IDPs in the camp. With 4,000 households – a number that grows each day – he urges local landowners to make their property available to the program.

Bahati still dreams of returning home to Bibwe, but returning to farming has made her feel at home.

“I feel just like at my own home here, doing the work I greatly enjoy,” she says.

Bahati appeals to other IDPs to engage in farming rather than relying solely on assistance from humanitarian organizations.

Other Food Assistance for Assets activities are taking place in other armed conflict-affected areas, including South Kivu and the provinces of Eastern, Katanga and Équateur.

In all these areas, insecurity and access to land are the most pressing issues, Bitahwa says.

Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.