Students in DRC war zones desperate to resume studies

Micheline Nyota’s hope of completing her university studies in the required period of time has been shattered. She had to put her courses on hold several months ago because of worsening conflict in the area where she lived.

Nyota, 22, and her family were forced to flee from the Rutshuru Territory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to Goma due to the ongoing war between M23 rebels and the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or FARDC, which is the French acronym for the government army. The conflict, which has been dragging on for years, has intensified since early 2022 with Rutshuru Territory as one of the hot spots.

According to a January 2023 report, 521,000 people have been displaced due to the conflict since March 2022 and have been forced to live with host families and in facilities such as churches and schools in other, safer areas.

M23 rebels took over Rutshuru, Masisi and Beni as well as other parts of the country, forcing dozens of universities to shut down and thousands of students, including Nyota, stranded.

“Everything became chaotic as war intensified and we were forced to flee,” says Nyota, a second-year student in paediatrics at the Institut Supérieur des Techniques Médicales in Rutshuru.

“I could not complete the academic year because the rebels were controlling the area. There was, however, still fighting with the Congolese army, [so] universities were closed and all of us fled,” she says.

On 13 February, students from different universities across Goma town took to the streets to protest about the closure of universities and demand that the government do more to restore peace in several areas affected by conflict.

Education thwarted

Nyota has been separated from her family, and she now lives with other refugees in the camp in Goma, where her hopes to graduate and start working have been repeatedly thwarted.

“We left almost everything [behind], and we settled in the camp. I don’t have any hope that peace will be restored soon so that courses can resume. Besides, whenever I go to request for an academic internship or a temporary job, they ask me to present academic documents and I have nothing to present,” she says.

Nyota now contemplates joining a technical and vocational education and training institution for short courses, but it is also difficult, given that it would require tuition fees her family cannot afford currently. “Both my family and I have no source of income as they have been displaced. We can’t afford to pay the tuition fee for short courses,” she said.

Higher education sector affected

It is estimated that the students, researchers and academic and support staff of about 20 higher education institutions situated in the war zones in DRC have been affected by the conflict.

John Koraho, a lecturer at Université des Grands Lacs, which welcomes hundreds of students annually, lives with a host family in Goma city.

He is worried about his life and that of his family after he spent months without earning his salary. He also anticipates more effects associated with the war and armed conflicts in the region.

“This war has already brought about a negative effect; we are homeless and have nothing to do to get earnings,” he said.

“Besides, some students are forced to join the army on both sides and will likely have no chance to return to their respective universities while some students and academic staff members may opt to remain where they are,” he added.

Koraho called on the government to find ways to restore peace in the region and in other parts of the country to ensure that courses resume, stressing it was the government’s responsibility to maintain peace.

Student protests

Meanwhile, students from different universities across Goma town took to the streets on 13 February to protest about the closure of universities in the areas occupied by the rebels.

Protesters demanded that the government bring about calm to affected areas and that education resumes.

“Our colleagues from the war zones are stranded, they have been denied access to courses for months and, in solidarity, we think it is the government’s responsibility to restore peace, ensure that courses resume and that colleagues are not victims of armed conflicts,” Akimali Linjanja, a spokesperson of the Goma-based students said.

“We call upon the ministry of higher learning education to conduct an assessment to ascertain the exact number of affected universities and students and look for ways to place the students elsewhere in universities to continue their studies,” he added.

The M23 rebels

M23 stands for March 23 Movement, also known as Congolese Revolutionary Army.

It was formed after the former National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) soldiers mutinied against the DRC government and the peacekeeping contingent of the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the DRC.

Mutineers formed a rebel group called the March 23 Movement (M23), also known as the Congolese Revolutionary Army. It was composed of former members of the rebel CNDP.

The rebels are fighting about what they call the rights of Kinyarwanda-speaking Congolese living in the Eastern Region of the DRC. They allege that the Congolese government has deprived them of their rights as citizens, claiming that they belong to Rwanda and should go back there.

The DRC has been unstable for years, despite efforts by UN forces and East African Standby Forces to restore peace in the area.

Translated from the French by Jean d’Amour Mbonyinshuti.