Image "Lusenda, territoire de Fizi, Sud-Kivu, RD Congo : Une femme et son enfant dans le camp des réfugiés burundais de Lusenda" by MONUSCO is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

One of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world right now is happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and if you live in the United States, there’s a good chance you’re not seeing it in the news.

Fighting between the rebel group M23 and the Congolese military in the DRC’s eastern region has displaced more than 1 million people in the last three months and almost 7 million since it began in 2022. To put those numbers into perspective, it’s estimated that there are 3.7 million internally displaced people in Ukraine and just under 2 million in Gaza.

Leading human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, say that militia groups on both sides of the conflict are guilty of severe human rights abuses including kidnappings, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings.

“The fighting has further compounded an already dire humanitarian situation,” said Bintou Keita, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in the DRC.

The United Nations World Food Programme estimates that 2.8 million children in the DRC are severely malnourished.

“Today, the DRC is the world’s largest hunger crisis in absolute numbers and counts Africa’s highest number of internally displaced people,” reads the UN’s website. “Hunger and conflict are fueling each other.”

M23 and its origins

Most accounts of present-day violence and instability in eastern Congo mention the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

During the genocide, militias led by members of the country’s Hutu ethnic group killed approximately 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, before a Tutsi-led militia ended the killing and took control of Rwanda’s government.

Several military groups responsible for the genocide fled to eastern Congo and are still active there today, raising tensions on the Rwanda-Congo border. Rwandan President Paul Kagame said these groups pose a security threat to his country and to Tutsis living in the DRC. He blames Congo’s government for not doing enough to root them out.

The Tutsi-led M23 rebel group emerged in 2012 when around 300 soldiers defected from the Congolese army, claiming that the government had failed to protect Tutsi minorities in the DRC from extremist Hutu military groups.

According to Human Rights Watch, M23 rebels are responsible for indiscriminate massacres, rape, and the forced recruitment of civilians. The United States and the United Nations both say Rwanda’s military provides active support to M23, but Rwanda denies this.

In an effort to beat back the rebels, Congo’s military has aligned itself with extremist militias also guilty of serious human rights abuses. One of those groups is the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed militia partially made up of soldiers who perpetrated the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

In 2022, M23 mounted an aggressive campaign to take control of Goma, eastern Congo’s largest city. Though they haven’t yet reached the city, it’s estimated that at least 1.5 million people are currently living in areas around Goma controlled by M23.

Caught in the middle

As the fighting rages, material conditions on the ground continue to deteriorate. The Norwegian Refugee Council recently said that M23’s control of key roads and territories in eastern Congo makes it harder to deliver desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

“Things have gotten worse,” said Matthew Leutwyler, a filmmaker and humanitarian who frequently travels between Rwanda and the DRC.

Two years ago, Leutwyler built a small shelter for women and children in eastern Congo. He said that due to rising food prices and limited humanitarian access, the shelter’s residents have been unable to get food in recent weeks.

On March 2, Leutwyler drove to the shelter from Rwanda to deliver food and supplies. During the trip, he visited a camp north of Goma where he estimates tens of thousands are taking refuge.

Leutwyler described the living situation of a teen mother who gave birth 3 weeks ago.

“Her tent was basically large sheets of plastic stapled to a wood frame,” he said. “No floor- just the rocky dirt, which, due to the rains is more like a little muddy stream.”

At a UN refugee camp in Bushagara, a 15-year-old refugee named Olive holds her 3-week-old baby. Photo by Matthew Leutwyler

A lack of clean drinking water and sanitation has turned refugee camps around Goma into incubation sites for one of the world’s largest cholera outbreaks.

While hunger and disease run rampant, aid groups have struggled to raise enough money to support their operations in the region. In August 2023, the UN World Food Programme reported that it had only raised $161 million of the $728 million it needed to adequately fund relief efforts in eastern Congo over the next six months.

“It is not acceptable that aid agencies are forced to make impossible choices around who can and cannot be helped,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “And it is not acceptable that so many wealthy nations, corporations and individuals refuse to make a fair contribution to the suffering of millions.”

Leutwyler suggested this lack of support is driven by apathy, particularly from people living in the U.S. “I’m not sure why America doesn’t really care about what happens over here,” he said.