Thousands of people are fleeing violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo as fighting intensifies between the Congolese army and the M23 armed group.
Fighters reportedly surrounded the strategic town of Sake on Wednesday, a crucial step before reaching Goma, the capital of North Kivu. Capturing Sake would deal a logistical blow to Congolese soldiers.
The Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers have been struggling to contain M23’s advance. And as fighting continues, thousands of those who fled Sake have arrived in Bulengo, about 10km (six miles) west of Goma.
Thousands are “on the road right now”, trying to escape the violence and get to Goma, Al Jazeera’s Alain Uaykani said, reporting from Bulengo on Wednesday.
“They have been fighting for a week right now, but this morning, again, rebels have tried to take over the main city,” he explained.
It remains unclear whether the army or the rebels are now controlling the area, Uaykani added.
“The situation in Sake is very bad with heavy fighting between soldiers and M23 rebels. They have attacked with heavy guns and bombs fell on the city … this is why we are leaving for Goma,” Justin Musau, a displaced person from Sake, told Al Jazeera.
Another displaced person, Henriette Muyume, said, “We are running from the fighting between rebels and soldiers. We don’t know where we can go … but we can’t survive in this situation, it’s too much for us.”
In a region already plagued with militia violence, M23 rebels launched a major new offensive in March 2022, sparking a conflict that has led to military intervention and mediation efforts by East African regional leaders. They brokered a ceasefire last year but it has been repeatedly violated.
Clashes between the rebels, army forces and self-defence groups that support them have escalated recently, forcing entire communities in Masisi and Rutshuru territories to flee to perceived areas of greater safety on the outskirts of Goma.
Meanwhile in Goma on Wednesday, a rocket landed near a university. There were no casualties from the attack, which blasted a crater into an area of open ground in the Lac Vert neighbourhood northwest of Goma, but it underscored the potential threat to the city of approximately two million people.
“This shows that M23 is targeting Goma now, they want to kill people in Goma. The government has to do something to stop M23’s progress,” student Sophonie Bayonga, 25, told the Reuters news agency at the scene.
The DRC government this week promised that it would not let Goma, situated close to the border with Rwanda, fall into M23 hands. The armed group briefly overran North Kivu province in 2012.
On Wednesday, M23 said in a statement that this was not its goal and described its actions as “defensive manoeuvres”.
The DRC, Western powers and a UN expert group said the Tutsi-led rebel group is supported by Rwanda. Rwanda has denied all involvement, but the accusations have led to a diplomatic crisis in the region.
‘A lot of gunfire’
Civilians have borne the brunt of the violence in the restive east, with many killed in bombings and reprisal attacks.
About 42,000 people have been displaced from Masisi alone since February 2, the UN’s humanitarian office OCHA said on Tuesday.
M23 made major advances in the town of Mweso last month, bringing the conflict even closer to Goma, which is about 100km (62 miles) away.
Natalia Torrent, head of a Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) team in Mweso, said violent clashes broke out two weeks ago as the army and pro-government militia tried to reclaim the town.
After a lull, fighting picked up over the weekend and the MSF team received 30 wounded people in recent days, she told Reuters by phone on Tuesday.
MSF has had to evacuate some of its own staff after bullets struck a hospital in which thousands of Mweso residents were taking shelter. Most have since deserted the town.
The UN peacekeeping mission in DRC deployed troops at the end of January to secure a corridor for people fleeing Mweso. Many have sought safety in Sake.