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Kavira Kakese walks slowly on the stony trail to her field in Mayangose, a village in Virunga National Park, in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo. Her face is serious, and she looks around urgently to ensure the place is safe.
She pauses for a few seconds, then whispers, “There is a very high risk of meeting rebels here. Rebels beheaded my husband with a machete in our field in Mbau, not far from here.”
There are many small armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and Allied Democratic Forces. The number of rebel groups has grown since 2013, when a combined Congolese and UN force defeated M23, then the largest armed group in the region.
After her husband died, Mrs. Kakese decided she could no longer go to her field. She feared for her life, so she stayed home. But, despite the risk, the widow and mother of six was forced to change her mind.
She explains: “At the beginning, I was afraid of going to the field. I was very scared because the memory of the barbarism committed on my husband kept coming to my mind. But I had no choice other than to go back and farm to feed and send my children to school.”
Mrs. Kakese planted cocoa and coffee on one-quarter of her 200-square-metre plot. With neighbouring farmers, she developed a plan to reduce the risk of attack by armed groups. Every Friday from noon to 1 p.m., they go to the field in a group to sow, weed, or harvest.
She says the rebels attend prayer meetings on Friday at this time.
Before this region was so insecure, Mrs. Kakese grew cocoa and coffee on her entire plot. She harvested at least six bags of cocoa and six bags of coffee—1,200 kilograms total—and earned about $1,800 US per year.
But now she grows cocoa on just 25 square metres and coffee on another 25 square metres. She laments: “I can’t even harvest half a bag of cocoa or coffee; instead, I get one 13-kilogram bag that I can sell at $1.50 per kilogram and I earn [$20 US]. I am afraid of venturing deep into my field because this is where these rebels came from when they killed my husband.”
Her production is only a small fraction of previous years, and her income doesn’t allow her to feed her family or pay her children’s school fees.
Local NGOs like the Human Rights Organization National Coordination, or CRDH, can’t afford to help people. Instead, they are urging provincial and national authorities to find a solution to the conflict.
Jean Paul Ngahangondi is the national coordinator of the CRDH. He say there are many villages that are mostly abandoned, and that the remaining people are no longer able to go to their fields.
Mr. Ngahangondi also worries about famine and child recruitment—many young people have dropped out of school because of the crisis.
The conflict is also affecting Kahindo Nzole, a mother of nine. At 45 years old, she abandoned her field—like many others in an area where the population mainly makes a living from farming.
For many years, Mrs. Nzole grew cocoa and coffee in Mayangose. In 2013—three years after the first rebel attacks—she abandoned her field because of the growing frequency of rape, abduction, and murder of women as they worked in their fields.
In a shaky voice and with tears in her eyes, she says: “I haven’t been to my field for five years now. So my family and I live in poverty. My children don’t go to school anymore. My dream is to see them go back to school, but my dream is slowly falling apart. I had an income thanks to my field. I am concerned that this situation will continue.”
Mrs. Nzole grows a bit of cassava and vegetables such as amaranth and tomatoes in a small, five-square-metre garden behind her house. Sometimes, she earns 10,000 Congolese francs ($6.20 US) by selling cassava leaves in the small village market, but her income is not enough.
This story was originally published in August 2018.