KIWANJA - On a recent weekday morning, time seemed to be standing still in this town in eastern Congo. A strange atmosphere reigns, with most of the shops and stalls closed and the town’s schools empty.

“Bullets can start flying at any time, so we let our students out early,” says a teacher in Kiwanja in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. .

News of the return of the M23 rebels has spread, and though locals tried not to give in to panic, the sounds of shots being fired the previous evening convinced most residents to stay inside. “A man was shot to death, he was buried by the Red Cross,” says a neighborhood leader.

Kiwanja and Rutshuru, two towns north of Goma, the North Kivu regional capital, had been strongholds of the M23 rebels since since the anti-government forces took control of the region in July 2012. But in February, the rebels split into two rival factions and left the region, leaving entire towns at the mercy of armed militias.

Soon after, government troops arrived to try to secure the towns, and were welcomed by locals who were able to go back to working the fields. “Our lives had stopped, everything, all activities were stopped,” recalled one inhabitant.

But hopes were quickly shot down. A few days later, the army left, abandoning the towns to the warring militia groups. “We were ready to defend this region but our superiors told us to hand back the towns,” explained a government soldier.

Reports say the army was forced to hand back the towns to avoid jeopardizing peace negotiations, since an agreement reached last November stipulated that the government could not move into M23 territory while negotiations are ongoing.

Short-lived peace for locals

The confusion on the ground comes more than a year after civil strife erupted in the mineral-rich northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, near the borders of Uganda and Rwanda. Rebels briefly held the city of Goma in November, before withdrawing and entering negotiations with the government. Still unrest continues, and locals pay the price

Benjamin M’ponimpa, the administrator of Rutshuru, who was installed by the M23, blames what is happening in his town on the pro-government Mai Mai militia, which is active in the region. “After the M23 left, other armed groups took over the town. Now, they want to make us look bad by blaming us for their actions,” he says.

In Kiwanja, the Mai Mai militia and the Nyatura rebel group have been fighting each other for control of the city. “After the clashes, we retrieved a dozen bodies that we had to bury,” says a Red Cross employee.

The Nyatura’s Rwandan rebel allies, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) have also taken control of central Rutshura, as well as the town of Rubare.

“When they arrived, the FDLR headed straight to the campsite that the M23 had deserted and burned everything to the ground," says a Rubare inhabitant. "Apart from that, they’re not doing any harm, we watch them as they patrol around the village.”