Expert Opinion

The power of solidarity in displacement

Along the twisting paths through lush vegetation that run between scattered houses in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), children can be seen laughing and playing.  As with children everywhere, they seem oblivious to the tragic circumstances and recurrent violence that brought them here, separated them from their families, and left them with nothing in an unfamiliar place.

One tragic story among so many others

Armed violence and instability have displaced millions of people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the last two decades. South Kivu is one of the country’s eleven provinces where up to 661,400 people have been forced to flee from armed groups and conflict as of March 2015.

Many internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Kivu provinces have been living in protracted displacement for years and according to surveys conducted in Masisi and Uvira territories, the majority have been forced to flee their homes more than once.

While on mission my colleague, Melanie Kesmaecker-Wissing, met Belcha*, a Congolese woman who has been forced to flee several times from her village. Most recently she heard gunshots, where she fled due to fear of harm to her and her children. She now lives with a host family and relies on their support to survive, as current humanitarian responses struggle to provide adequate assistance in long-term displacement situations.  

When Belcha escaped several months ago, she was separated from her husband and is not sure if he is alive. She has since become the guardian to the children of her siblings—12 in total including her own. To feed her children, she works in the fields for local residents, and earns a mere 1,000 Congolese francs, the equivalent of one US dollar, per day. She would have liked to work in a “scientific job”, as she calls it, but she never had the opportunity to study.

We heard many similar stories to Belcha’s during our mission to the DRC.  What these stories reveal is how repeated displacement reduces a person’s resilience and ability to “bounce back” with each subsequent displacement, as each time they flee with less and less.  We were in DRC researching this phenomenon for IDMC’s joint project with Climate Interactive, the Norwegian Refugee Council and International Alert, which is funded with UK aid from the British people. The project aims to identify approaches that strengthen the resilience of people, like Belcha, who are affected by repeated waves of displacement, to find out more about how they cope, what survival strategies they use and what vulnerabilities they experience along the way.

Generosity as a way of coping

Overwhelmingly, we found that generosity and solidarity, like Belcha’s, is common among Congolese people. Here, many people live in fear that they will become displaced and they must frequently rely on strangers to host them.  Indeed many of these host families have experienced displacement themselves, so are more willing to help others displaced and facing the same challenges.

Research suggests that humanitarians’ lack of understanding of vulnerabilities during a permanent crisis, like in the DRC, has led to a response which has failed to maintain or strengthen the resilience of people suffering protracted and repeated displacement.

201504 af drc mkesmaeckerwissing 2This was certainly true of Fiavina*, another Congolese woman who we met, and who had suffered fear and hunger several times when she fled with her parents and again with her husband.  She has since returned to Lweba and hosts four displaced families in her home.  While she admits that this puts a lot of stress on her own family, she always tries to find ways of coping. She has, for example, given each family a piece of land so that they can grow and help to contribute to the household.

Hope for a better future

Although Belcha and Fiavina have different experiences of displacement, they both dream of a better future for themselves and their families. Belcha wants her children to be able to go to school, and access health and basic services that will allow them to “grow strong”. Fiavina hopes that the displaced people she takes care of will be able to go back to their homes one day or that they will one day be better supported by the government or humanitarian and development organisations. For them, helping others is the best way of securing a better future.

For more information on our project in DRC, read the project paper and a thematic paper on decision-making in displacement.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.