In the Kivu provinces of the Eastern Congo, permanent semi-urban towns emerge from the protracted presence of refugees and internally displaced persons. Using the example of Kitchanga in North Kivu, Gillian Mathys and Karen Büscher (Ghent University) show the importance of such towns as important spaces in the politics of mobility, presence and return in a context of violent conflict and ethnic mobilisation.

This article is part of our #LSEReturn series, exploring themes around Displacement and Return. Research was also conducted in the context of ‘Looking Through the Lens of Land’.


Kitchanga has had its fair share of celebrity visits. Princess Caroline of Monaco, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, and US Ambassador Nikki Haley have all visited this small yet emerging ‘town’ in the mountains of North Kivu. In the (relative) absence of mineral exploitation, NGO presence, or an airstrip, Kitchanga appears at first as a centre of marginal importance. Part of Kitchanga’s ‘fame’ however is due to heavy fighting in 2013 between a branch of the Congolese army (under the command of Colonel Mudahunga, having links to M23) and the APCLS, an armed group controlling parts of the town’s surrounding hinterland. The heavy fighting not only caused over a hundred deaths, but also burned Kitchanga almost entirely to the ground. These incidents reveal how much Kitchanga is connected to broader dynamics of conflict and violence of North Kivu, despite its seeming marginal position.

The violent clashes in 2013 indeed did not come out of the blue, but are part of the town’s historical trajectory as a site of refuge, return, ethnic mobilisation and political ambitions. Over the past thirty years, Kitchanga has been a safe haven for people fleeing violence, a rebel headquarter, a violent battleground, and a contested ‘city’. Each of these episodes offer a unique spatial ‘window’ into the politics of mobility, presence and return in a context of violent conflict. They illustrate how the urbanisation of Kitchanga, which stands out from its surroundings because of its large demographic numbers (around 80,000 inhabitants) and its semi-urban character, is rooted in the protracted concentration of refugees and IDPs. It is their presence that from the start has determined the highly political nature of the town’s emergence and growth.

This aerial photo of Kitchanga was taken during the crisis in March 2013 when IOM North Kivu organised an aerial reconnaissance mission to estimate the numbers of IDPs who had found refuge close to the MONUSCO bases and identify other newly created spontaneous sites.
Image Credit: UN Migration Agency (IOM) via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Since the start of turmoil in the region in 1993, Kitchanga represented an important refuge for those seeking protection from violence, of different ethnic backgrounds. However, increasingly, this went hand in hand with inter-ethnic tensions that were conditioned by regional dynamics and historical patterns of migration and displacement. Animosities between Hunde (so-called ‘autochtonous) and Banyarwanda (literally ‘those coming from Rwanda’, and often labelled as non-autochthonous by other Congolese), deepened during Mobutu’s rule, became highly politicised and connected to issues of citizenship and political representation during and after the Congo Wars.

Political elites and armed groups have used the presence, mobility, and settlement of refugees and IDPs in and around Kitchanga as a crucial element in their political mobilisation, using forced displacement and return as political resources. During the second Congolese war, for example, Kitchanga became an important site for the RCD rebel movement’s politics of return, which encouraged (and sometimes forced) Congolese Tutsi refugees who had fled to Rwanda between 1994 and 1996 to return to Kitchanga[1]. When Kitchanga later became one of the main CNDP rebel strongholds and the headquarter of its leader Laurent Nkunda, this reiterated the political and military importance of the town. With the return of Congolese Tutsi as one of CNDP’s key action points, the resettlement of Tutsi refugees into Kitchanga continued and provoked renewed mobilisation of Hunde as well as of Hutu armed groups aimed at what was explained as the protection of the ‘autochthonous’ population against this perceived ‘Tutsi dominance’.

In this context of identity politics, the transformation of Kitchanga from a temporary refuge to a permanent settlement and urban centre was and is a contested and heavily politicised process. Some of Kitchanga’s inhabitants for example see the presence of IDP camps as a major problem; they often mention the loss of control by local ‘customary’ authorities or complain about the increasingly permanent character of displacement and the camps in town. Indeed, both IDPs and inhabitants of the cité of Kitchanga have started buying plots in the camps. That many IDPs wish to stay is in the specific context of Kitchanga a highly politicised issue. At the same time, refugee and IDP populations themselves are seen as being connected to conflict dynamics. Widespread allegations of armed groups recruiting in the camps or arming IDP populations are another reminder of the politicised nature of displacement and settlement.

Other political dynamics have had an equal impact on the struggle for political control over Kitchanga. One of these dynamics is the decentralisation process. Despite its official start in 2008, it has still only been partially implemented. This process envisages a potential administrative transition of Kitchanga from being part of a customary entity to a more independent ‘commune’. Elements in support of such transition are its demographics and urban characteristics. However, it would also entail a loss of Hunde customary control over the place, and would potentially give more power to Rwandophones in Kitchanga. This explains the fierce political struggle that erupted as a result of this potential administrative shift at the local and provincial level, manipulated by both ‘autochthonous’ and Rwandophone elites.

All these dynamics illustrate that the protracted nature of violence, identity politics and patterns of displacement, in themselves closely linked to one another, determine spatial developments. Political elites, community leaders and armed groups in their strategies and competition have contributed to Kitchanga’s ‘consolidation’ into a permanent town. This consolidation is the outcome of its strategic function within local politics of refuge, presence and return. A single case like Kitchanga reveals the value of using a narrow spatial focus on dynamics of conflict, militarisation and forced displacement. Documenting the detailed history of one specific town tells us a lot about broader political struggles for power and control. It clearly demonstrates how towns like Kitchanga represent strategic resources in violent struggles, and provide us with fascinating spatial and analytical starting points to study the political geographies of conflict dynamics in Eastern DRC.

[1].             Pole Institut, “Le retour” On the use of force, see e.g.: US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, “The Forced Repatriation”.

This blogpost is based on a paper recently published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies. Find out more about the Politics of Return  and our Trajectories of Displacement research projects, which are based at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa and funded by ESRC/AHRC.

Gillian Mathys (@GMathys) is a historian based at the History Department of Ghent University. Her geographical focus is North- and South-Kivu and Rwanda. She is interested in the historical shape of identities and territories, in local and regional dynamics of state-formation, and in how history can help understand contemporary conflict dynamics. Her work spans the pre-colonial, colonial, and early post-colonial period.

Karen Büscher (@Karenbscher) is an Assistant Professor at the Conflict Research Group, Ghent University, Belgium. Her work focuses on different aspects of the relationship between violent conflict and urbanisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Northern Uganda.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.