Kavira Mathe was making dinner for her two sons when bullets began flying. Eastern Congo's M23 rebels had attacked her village, killing scores of civilians. She and others fled for their lives, she said.
“I lost several friends,” said Mathe speaking to The Associated Press by phone from Kanyabayonga where she now shelters. Trekking 50 kilometers (some 30 miles) to safety, she saw roads littered with bodies that appeared to have been bound and shot, she said.
“It was really horrible to see," said Mathe. "We are tired of this war.”
Communities in eastern Congo are struggling to survive in the wake of that massacre and others in which at least 130 people were killed by M23 rebels in what the United Nations called “unspeakable violence” against civilians.
Nearly 26,000 people have been displaced since the attacks at the end of November, according to the UN refugee agency, adding to hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted since fighting began between M23 and a coalition of armed civilian protection militia more than a year ago.
The Associated Press spoke with four people who fled the attacks in North Kivu province. They said M23 shot people indiscriminately, raided shops and chased them from their homes so that people had to hike to safety for hours over rugged terrain and through rivers, without food or water. Many now live in squalid conditions, cramped into small rooms with no money or access to fields for farming.
The M23 rebel group, largely comprised of Congolese ethnic Tutsis, rose to prominence 10 years ago when its fighters seized Goma, eastern Congo's largest city on the border with Rwanda. It derives its name from a March 23, 2009, peace deal, which it accuses the Congo government of not implementing. The rebel group was dormant for nearly a decade before resurfacing late last year.
Since October, M23 violence has surged and the rebels have seized more territory including Rutshuru Center and Kiwanja and destroyed a newly established site for displaced Congolese who had recently returned from Uganda.
“This situation has directly put thousands of families in very poor living conditions. In the makeshift camps where they live, there is no food, no shelter, no drinking water, no primary healthcare. In short, the families are in unprecedented suffering,” said Francois Kamate, press officer for LUCHA, a local rights group.
Aid organizations are struggling to cope with the soaring needs. Water is extremely limited in the areas surrounding Goma, contributing to an outbreak of cholera. More than 100 cases have been reported in recent weeks, said Caitlin Brady, Congo director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“The humanitarian community is responding, but we have to have more resources to scale up,” she said. The nearly 400,000 newly displaced people since October are in addition to nearly 5.5 million people already displaced in Congo and the situation is quite desperate, she said.
Many civilians living under M23 aren't receiving assistance at all as some of the areas are too hard to access amid the insecurity. Those living under the rebels say they live in terror.
“The situation is very bad. People are being killed,” said a resident living in Rutshuru Center, a town now occupied by the group. The AP is not using his name to protect his identity. People are living in fear and the rebels are demanding food and money, he said. M23 is also beating and jailing those who take photos in town because they're worried people are passing on information, he said.
Efforts at peace talks have so far yielded little. Both sides accuse the other of breaking a fragile cease-fire agreed to last month in Angola. This week, M23 representatives met with regional leaders, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo and the Congolese army, saying it welcomes efforts to resolve the conflict, said Lawrence Kanyuka the group's political spokesman in a statement.
Congo's government blames Rwanda for supporting the M23 with troops and superior firepower, findings backed by the UN In a speech to the country this week Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi called out the international community for not doing enough to stem the fighting.
“The east is plagued by violence because of the presence of many armed groups in almost total indifference to the international community,” he said.
The continued external support for the rebels, compounded by escalating violence, could threaten regional stability, say conflict analysts.
“Congo's militia problem has increasingly turned into a potent regional security threat,” said Trupti Agrawal, senior analyst for East Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The rebel groups' ability to escalate attacks despite reinforcements to counterinsurgency operations indicates their strength.”