Sitting in the dirt, Valerie Kahindo picks spoiled kernels from a sack of maize – the only job the farmer can find in the eastern Congolese city of Goma after rebel fighters seized her fields and forced her to flee without her family.
The mother of eight is among 450,000 people displaced in this year’s renewed offensive by the M23 rebel group, whose seizure of land in North Kivu province has also severed key trade routes and disrupted farming that is the backbone of the local economy.
“The M23 set up camp in my field… They destroyed my field,” 50-year-old Kahindo said at the mill in Goma that she once supplied with up to 15 tonnes of maize per year.
Her children, grandchildren, parents and siblings are stuck in rebel-occupied parts of Rutshuru territory to the north of Goma, a key trading hub of almost one million people on the border with Rwanda.
“They call me day and night asking for help, but I have no way to send them even 5 kg of flour. There is not even a road to deliver it.”
The M23, formed in 2012, says it is defending the interests of Congolese Tutsis, the ethnic group targeted in the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda. Congo, Western countries and U.N. experts accuse Rwanda of backing the M23, which it denies.
The situation in Goma is acute too.
Since fighting surged in the province again in October, prices for everyday essentials such as maize, beans and charcoal have almost doubled because the violence has made roads impassable and has forced farming cooperatives to close in Rutshuru, the breadbasket of the province, according to the regional business association.
Bweteta Maize Flour mill, where Kahindo works, has had to slash production by 90% to around 50 tonnes per month due to the drop in supply of unprocessed kernels. It can buy maize from Rwanda, but the price is three times higher and customs procedures cause agonising delays, said manager Kevin Paluku.
“We don’t know if our families will get by because we don’t have enough to eat,” said worker Innocent Bahati, as he waited glumly with flour-dusted colleagues for the milling machines to start up again.
The fallout from the supply chain issues is being felt across the city, where households depend on maize flour to make the staple dish ugali.
Cristelle Feza has become used to disappointing would-be customers at her grocery shop, one of several colourfully handpainted storefronts in Goma’s South Mabanga district.
“Many people leave without buying,” Feza said, who has had to double what she charges for Bweteta flour. “The customers are complaining that the flour costs more, that they will die of hunger.”