KIBATI, November 1 – Droves of civilians forced out of their camp for the displaced massed Saturday on the main road out of Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hoping a lull in the fighting would allow them to return "home".
Gathered in little clusters to listen to the latest news on the radio or lying on grassy patches on the roadside, there were thousands of them around Kibati, a town some 10 kilometres (six miles) north of Goma.
Most had fled a camp for internally-displaced people in Kibumba, 20 kilometres (12 miles) further north, at the height of the fighting between regular Congolese forces and rebels led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda.
These families have since tried to survive on their own, in the absence of any relief from humanitarian organisations.
"I sleep on the roadside. I don’t have blankets, no sheeting. We have to ask the local population for food but it’s not enough for all of us," said Simon Tuzere, a 50-year-old farmer.
Next to him, a young man in rags and walking with a limp caused by an untreated wound, cried for help.
"We only have water. It’s been a week now without finding anything to eat," said John, 21, who also used to live in Kibumba, which has since fallen to Nkunda’s Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).
Unlike some villagers waiting to rally their camp, John has no belongings to his name, only an old leather jacket.
"We fled the camp on Monday at around 10 in the morning. This is when they started shelling," he recounted.
"If we know we can find food there, we’ll go back," John said.
As regular forces deserted en masse, Nkunda’s forces made major territorial gains in recent days and had looked poised to push further towards Goma, the capital of the province of Nord-Kivu.
But the CNDP declared a ceasefire on Wednesday, triggering a ballet of Western diplomatic missions in the region in a bid to defuse the crisis, and offering a short window for civilians to return to their homes and camps.
Some 220,000 people have now been displaced since fighting broke out in August, bringing to more than one million the number forced from their homes in Nord-Kivu, a province bordering Rwanda that totals five million.
The massive influx of displaced people has increased the pressure on the local population in Kibati, which is having to share its meagre resources with the civilians thrown on the road by the fighting.
"We didn’t have much to start with and we’re not happy about this situation. The displaced are coming to our fields and stealing our bananas," said Shamboko Kavira, a sturdy 35-year-old villager keeping watch in front of his small wooden house.
"They took a goat from us and also stole some household utensils, all our pots and pans," a teenage neighbour added.
Further north towards Kibumba, families were slowly resuming their march, now heading back to where they were a few days ago, in the camps run by the UN refugee agency (HCR).
Many of them had found shelter there around a year ago after being dislodged by an earlier wave of fighting involving Nkunda’s rebel forces.
After Kibati, the "returning displaced families" will walk past a position held by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUC), through an invisible frontline and eventually cross into rebel-controlled territory.
For his part, John was still weighing his options, with one concern foremost in his mind: finding food.
"Let them hurry," he said, upon hearing a rumour that food aid could be delievered to the Goma area within days.