GISENYI, Rwanda — When gunfire broke out in her home area in eastern Congo, Annie Kabeja joined a wave of thousands fleeing the area and walked for two days with her two children toward neighboring Rwanda.
“We heard gunshots and blasts. We had no option but to flee,” the 34-year-old Kabeja said after arriving in Rwanda. “We couldn’t sleep. Bullets were flying all over the place.”
Watch video of the Congolese fleeing to Rwanda here:
Violence in eastern Congo has surged after dozens of soldiers mutinied on Monday and created a new group in a largely lawless area of Africa where numerous rebel armies have taken root.
The new group created by the mutinous soldiers calls itself March 23, the date of the 2009 peace accord signed by rebel groups and the Congolese government. It is purportedly led by a colonel who was formerly under Bosco Ntaganda, a former warlord who was integrated into the Congolese army under the peace deal despite being wanted by the International Criminal Court.
Congolese army spokesman Col. Sylvain Ekenge called the new group a “farce” but clashes between it and Congo’s army continued for days in the Masisi region of North Kivu.
Kabeja, her youngest child strapped on her back, waited with thousands of others in a long, snaking line at Nkamira Transit Camp to receive food rations and other basic necessities. Rwanda normally uses the facility in Rwanda’s mountainous, rainy and cold Northern Province to temporarily welcome repatriated refugees from the jungles of Congo.
Straton Kamanzi, the manager of the U.N.-supported camp, said it’s designed to hold 4,000, but currently houses 7,000. Women, girls and infants sleep crammed together under the temporary shelters.
“For (the men) it is OK. We sleep outside and let women and children who are more vulnerable to sleep in the tents,” said Herve Munyentwari, a 22-year-old university student. “My worry is that my studies have been interrupted but hopefully we will return home.”
Richard Ndaula, who is with the U.N.’s refugee agency, said 250 to 300 people are showing up at the camp near the Congo border each day.
“We are not sure when the situation in Congo will calm down, but we anticipate more people will be coming in,” he said.
Other refugees were arriving in the nearby town of Rubavu. Officials tried to sort out who was Congolese and who was Rwandan. Many Rwandans fled into Congo after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and stayed there. Many of the refugees are Rwandan but Congolese are among them.
“We cannot identify who is Rwandese and who is not, but at the end of the day we have to let them all in,” said a Rwandese official.
Over the weekend, the governor of Congo’s North Kivu Province, Julien Kahongya Paluku, visited the camp inside Rwanda, giving assurances that peace would return.
Ekenge called on the mutinous soldiers to reintegrate into the Congolese army and for military leaders to create favorable conditions for those wanting to return.
Ntaganda is accused of using child soldiers for fighting in northeastern Congo from 2002 to 2003. He was first indicted on war crimes charges in 2006 by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court. Congo President Joseph Kabila said last month that Ntaganda should be arrested and face a military tribunal in Congo.
In the past, Kabila had refused calls to hand over Ntaganda, arguing his cooperation was essential to keeping the peace in the troubled east of the country.
Ntaganda was integrated into the Congolese army along with unknown hundreds of troops under a peace deal ending a 2009 rebellion that was negotiated as the rebels were about to take the provincial capital of Goma.