Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Denis Sebwage Rugemba sits on the side of a road running through Bushagara camp on the outskirts of the Congolese city of Goma, surrounded by the sparse belongings of others like him who have fled their homes.
There is a garishly orange t-shirt; a quilted jacket; a brightly coloured skirt. The sun fiercely refracts through white plastic tents; the heat is blistering but there is no shade.
But Rugemba, 78, is impervious to the environment as he pulls away loose strings and mends holes, continuing in exile a job he has practised for fifty years. The more clothes he repairs, the better chance he has of earning a little money; of buying food.
He is among some 240,000 people sheltered in various camps – including Bushagara – around Goma, seeking refuge from the M23 rebels in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. They represent just a third of the civilians who have been uprooted since the M23 rebel group, which was previously active 10 years ago, re-emerged in late 2021.
According to the Kivu Security Tracker, which monitors attacks in eastern DRC where there are more than 120 armed groups, some 296 people have been killed in clashes with the group since October 2021.
Neighbouring Rwanda has been accused of supporting the group by a United Nations group of experts, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the DRC government in Kinshasa, but Kigali and the rebels themselves have vigorously denied the accusations.
Nonetheless, allegations of Rwandan support for M23 have spurred regional tensions, with DRC President Felix Tshisekedi calling for sanctions against Kigali in March.
Meanwhile, the militia currently controls a swath of territory encircling Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu as Congolese troops, aided by a regional force that excludes Rwanda, takes them on.
For Rebecca Kabuo, a youth activist with Lutte pour le Changement (Fight for Change) or LUCHA, it is crucial to remember the dignity of people affected by the continuing conflict.
“Consider the dead and not just the numbers,” she told Al Jazeera. “These are people, they are human beings.”
‘Going back in circles’
For those caught in the conflict, displacement has become a repeat experience.
In 2006, Rugemba first fled his home in Rutshuru district, 68km (42 miles) north of Goma amid fighting between the DRC military and the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), a group of rebel fighters claiming to protect Congo’s Tutsi population.
Twenty-five of his relatives were killed. The others took shelter in a displacement camp, not far from where Rugemba stays now and tried to make a life there.
His eldest child got married while waiting to return home. Friends made food and contributed money to buy beer. “At least it was a wedding,” he told Al Jazeera.
His mother died of illness in old age and was buried in the surrounding hills. By 2009, CNDP was integrated into the national army, so he returned to his village.
But the peace did not hold.
Unhappy with their position in the Congolese military, and claiming that government agreements had not been honoured, ex-CNDP operatives launched the first M23 rebellion in April 2012. They took their name from March 23, the date the treaty had been signed.
During the 2012 uprising, the M23 rebels advanced as far as Goma, parading past UN peacekeepers on their march into the city they held for 10 days. The 20-month revolt came to an end in November 2013, as the army, reinforced by the UN, captured the last of M23’s fiefdoms and the remaining rebels announced their intentions to finally stand down.
Again, Rugemba began to rebuild his life by tending to his fields and planting maize, beans and banana plants.
Life was calm for a while, but the M23 returned in late 2021 as a result of the same longstanding historical tensions that had fostered earlier rebellions, according to Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst for the Great Lakes with the Crisis Group.
“They are still practically using the same discourse,” said Sematumba of the rebels, comparing current fighters with their predecessors in the first M23 rebellion and to CNDP combatants. “For all these years, we are going back in circles.”
Sematumba suggested that Rwandan support for the group may have been a response to competition between the countries in the region.
The latest M23 rebellion kicked off in the same month that Tshisekedi signed a deal with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, allowing troops from Kampala to fight the Allied Democratic Forces in DRC’s Beni, while also permitting Uganda to construct new roads in the region.
“All these deals did not involve Rwanda,” said Sematumba. “[President] Kagame got very angry about that.”