By Blaise Sanyila in Kitchanga and Sanne Biesmans in Beni, the Democratic Republic of the Congo 

As more families flee the DRC’s Beni Territory, shelter needs are mounting – over 100,000 families who have found safety in North Kivu urgently need a place to stay.

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Elodie, a displaced Congolese woman, cooks outside her durable shelter in Beni, in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© UNHCR/Justin Kasereka

“We walked for two days to reach Mangina town, where we had no place to stay,” she recalls. “Our feet were sore for a week; we were massaging them every day.”

After nine long months, her family finally found moved into a more dignified shelter – a durable brick house with a thatched roof – provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners.

“We walked for two days…our feet were sore for a week.”

“We feel safer now,” she says happily. “My children and I can sleep better at night.”

More than two million internally displaced Congolese fleeing their homes in North Kivu province have undergone a similar experience of being exposed to the elements and anxiously looking forward to having a roof over their heads­­.

Most of them have been able to count on the hospitality of their host communities for accommodation, although this puts enormous pressure on the displaced and their hosts.

Elodie, a displaced Congolese woman, cooks outside her shelter in Beni, in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Elodie, a displaced Congolese woman, cooks outside her shelter in Beni, in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. © UNHCR/Justin Kasereka

Kahambu Mwavuli, 57, barely has any space left in her house in Oicha in Beni Territory, with more than 25 people, including her own family of seven and the displaced people she has taken in, currently crammed into her small home.

“I welcomed them all because I have some extra space,” she explains.

Such acts of solidarity and kindness are not uncommon here.

When the security situation improves, some of the displaced will return home but for various reasons, many others will choose to remain.

Dusabé Irasebura, 53, and his wife and six children fled their home many years ago and found safety in Kitchanga, in the southern part of the province. After living in an overcrowded site for ten years, they are now proud homeowners in Kitchanga town, with support from UNHCR.

“Today I live at home,” says Dusabé, who bought land and with help from a team of builders and engineers from UNHCR and its partner AIDES, built a proper house. “I no longer have to sleep in the same room with all my children. I am no longer displaced and it feels so good!”

In an area that has been plagued with incessant violence for over two decades, finding durable solutions for internally displaced people (IDPs) can be challenging, but not impossible.

Justine Dede, UNHCR’s Camp Coordination Officer based in Goma points to efforts to decongest IDP sites and promote solutions for those in situations of prolonged displacement.

“When returning home is not possible, we help integrate displaced people into the host community so that they can carry on and start building a future again,” she explains.

With over 5 million people internally displaced by violence and instability across DRC since 2017, UNHCR has scaled up its operational response in the country to assist those in need, focusing on providing protection monitoring and assistance, shelter support, distributing relief items and helping people that choose to return home.

While Elodie and Dusabé were among those who received such vital assistance, tens of thousands continue to live in dire conditions due to lack of funding and resources.

“I don’t know where to go next.”

Edmon Bakituwa found refuge in a primary school in Oicha during the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were closed, but as they reopen, displaced families are being asked to leave.

“My stay here is long overdue, but I don’t know where to go next,” he says, looking into the distance.

As more and more people flee to safer towns, the housing situation continues to deteriorate. UNHCR is working to improve housing for displaced people in North Kivu but more assistance is urgently needed to meet shelter needs in those areas where security is less volatile.

Over 23,000 displaced families in North Kivu received shelter assistance in 2020, but the overall needs keep growing, with over 100,000 families still in urgent need of shelter in the province alone.

“I am hopeful that God will help us and I can find a place to call home again,” says Edmon.