Eastern Congo is supposed to be at peace. But life for civilians in Mweso health zone, Masisi territory, North Kivu, is anything but peaceful.
Although a peace agreement was signed three years ago, ongoing instability, violence, a worsening humanitarian situation and festering ethnic tensions continue to make life precarious for civilians.
The lush, green fertile valleys, punctuated by farmed land that resembles neat patchwork quilts, are stunningly beautiful. But life here, where Oxfam operates public health and protection programmes, funded by Irish Aid and a multi-donor UN fund, is no rural idyll.
In Mweso, where Oxfam has a field base, local staff briefed me on the complexities of the area. Political rivalries, geo-politics and migrants from neighbouring Rwanda, many of whom have long-established family links in Congo, military abuses, a proliferation of militia groups, land grabbing, informal "taxes" demanded by militia on the roads and pervasive violence added up to a lethal cocktail and meant that daily life for people here was a constant struggle.
Another three-hour journey, through yet more breathtakingly beautiful scenery along roads edged with young children waving and shouting out as our cars pass, takes us to Mpati, where Oxfam is carrying out training workshops.
The tension in the air is palpable. I’m warned to be extremely careful before taking any photographs or video. Mpati, a camp housing thousands of displaced people, as well as returnees and a settled community, is one of the most sensitive locations in which we work. Soldiers, nursing their AK47s, keep a watchful eye over everything.
Not so far from here, in hills across the valley, is a frontline, where military clashes continue.
Oxfam staff are holding training sessions with local community volunteers and women's groups. They include members of local volunteer protection committees, set up with the help of Oxfam. Their role is to try to help spread awareness in the community about people’s basic rights; support victims of violence to get access to services and lobby the local authorities for action to respond to abuses. No easy task in a place where people live in fear.
The sessions I attend address issues of sexual and gender based violence, HIV and aids, which are almost-daily challenges facing communities here. There’s also discussion about land conflict and unofficial checkpoints, where many are forced to pay a “fee”, forced labour and arbitrary arrest. Participants think about what they might be able to do about these issues - but when they look at the risks, only the smallest and safest actions are possible.
One morning I visit a site where Oxfam has installed a safe water source point, making it easier for people to collect clean drinking water. All water points have been carefully planned, with the input of local protection committees, I learnt, so that there were multiple exit points for people, mostly women, collecting water if they came under attack.
In town, I met Kanyere- not her real name - a member of the local protection committee. The fresh-faced teenager said she had joined because she’d wanted to help make life safer for her family and her community.
She told me that, since Oxfam began working in the camp, there had been positive changes. Since awareness training had been carried out in the community, she said, people’s behaviour had begun to slowly change.
But such is the atmosphere of control and repression here that I later learnt Kanyere had been questioned by officials about her conversation with a foreigner.
Clearly, there's a long way to go before people feel that security is more than just a word here. Our protection work is helping, but it’s not a quick or easy fix.
Yet, as Fred Delva, Oxfam’s protection manager in Mweso told me, through training different groups in the community, providing spaces where people can exchange views, we were hoping to plant a seed that, hopefully, will continue to grow and bear fruit to nourish the community.