MASISI - Every day at 6 a.m., a parking lot near a roundabout in this northeastern Congo city fills with minibuses, motorbikes and heavy cargo trucks. The atalakus (ticket sellers) shout out names of destinations: "Masisi! Nyabiondo!"
Passengers board with their packages: manufactured goods, drinks, salted fish...Everyone is pushing each another, trying to get the best seats on the available vehicles. Those in a hurry scramble onto the back of motorbikes; two passengers huddle behind a minibus driver. Once the buses are finally on the road, at each stop women run up to the buses with cheese and bottles of milk and rush around the vehicles, which are still moving, pushing and shoving to be the first to make a sale.
The same thing happens on the return journey. With the enormous number of displaced persons - 17,000 displaced in a town of only 20,000 residents - and NGO workers, Masisi is attracting waves of shopkeepers from the nearby city of Goma, who travel here to sell beer, clothes, soap, cosmetics and electronic products.
This is the commercial side of the fighting that broke out last spring in the eastern region of North Kivu over disputes around the implementation of a 2009 peace agreement that integrated National Congress Defence of the People (CNDP) rebels into the national army. The United Nations esimates that the violence has displaced nearly half a million people since April.
"The conflict between government forces and the M23 rebels seems to be calmer in the center of the Masisi territory, so thousands of people have started to flock here," says André Buhima Bahibika, deputy administrator of the territory.
A price surge
However, it is a situation that is only making matters worse for the displaced persons. "The manufactured products are extremely expensive. They must think that we have already recovered after losing everything in the war! Being displaced, I can't even afford the basics," says Célestin Sengi, originally from Nyamaboko, more than 30 kilometers away.
Farming products have also risen in price: "100 kilos of beans have gone from $50 to $55. Two years ago, it used to cost $40," says Sakina Bilingo, a vendor from Goma who regularly travels between the two towns.
Even though, traditionally, Masisi used to supply Goma with meat, a kilogram is now more expensive here than it is in the capital of the North Kivu region. "One kilogram now costs $5.50 in Masisi, whereas in Goma, it's between $2.25 and $2.50," Sakina Bilingo says.
The surge in prices is not only making life difficult for the residents, but also for the humanitarian workers. "I've been here for three months now, traveling often from Masisi to the most remote corners of the territory. I have been eating at the restaurants in Masisi, and they're charging the same rates as in Goma. I don't earn enough to pay these prices," says one humanitarian worker in Masisi.
For residents, this relatively peaceful period has been beneficial: "Masisi is coming back to life. But, due to the large presence of national and international humanitarian workers, there are more and more shop owners, who aren't taking into account our average incomes. Prices are becoming unbearable and I'm really struggling to feed my family," complains one resident, Bito Kalinga.