“We were together in the forest when the fighting forced us to flee,” Mukakarimba said in tears, cradling her little boy to protect him from the lashing rain in this transit camp close to the Congolese border.
She was separated from her husband and a second child in the chaos sparked by the fighting between soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo's army and mutineers – who were until recently rebel soldiers.
“I was at home with my family when we heard explosions and people shooting, and everybody ran away,” said Rema Mukankusi, who made it across the border into Rwanda along with two of her grown children. Her husband and four other children scattered in different directions.
The mutineers are loyal to Bosco Ntaganda, a DR Congo army general and former militia leader sought by the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers.
Mukankusi, 58, and her two children took three days to walk to north-western Rwanda from the village of Kirolirwe in the pasturelands of DR Congo's Masisi region, where the thick of the fighting took place last week.
The Kivu provinces in eastern DR Congo have been unstable for the best part of the past 20 years, with a myriad of armed groups preying on the civilian population, and regular massive displacements of tens of thousands of people.
Since the outbreak of the latest clashes in Masisi at the end of April, some 6,000 Congolese have flocked into Nkamira transit camp, which lies some 20 kilometres from the DR Congo border, according to the UN refugee agency.
The majority of the Congolese who crossed the border into Rwanda have Rwandan ancestry and their mother tongue is the language spoken in Rwanda.
Because they left home only recently they look in good shape except for the mud coating their feet and legs. Large numbers of children, some with their parents, others who ran on their own following neighbours, mill round.
Over 20,000 refugees
Thousands of other Congolese – the UN estimates more than 20,000 in all – have also fled their villages and are in camps on the Congolese side of the border.
Eric Harerimana, 30, said he fled Mushaki in Masisi after mutineers attacked positions held by the regular Congolese army (FARDC).
He displayed scars and bruises, saying he was robbed and beaten up by FARDC soldiers, who accused him of being a Kinyarwanda speaker and therefore linked to the mutineers.
“FARDC arrested me and stole 200 dollars [154 euros] – they jailed me for three days,” said Harerimana. “The soldiers told me, 'You are running and you know it's your brothers who attacked Mushaki. Because you are young we see you as a soldier as well.'“
After bribing a colonel about 40 euros, and being beaten by soldiers, Harerimana said he was released and fled across the border into Rwanda.
Aid workers are struggling to cope with the flood of refugees, as the numbers overwhelm the small Nkamira camp, built for only 2,600 people and lying in the chilly north-west highlands.
“We're swamped by the numbers of refugees arriving,” said Straton Kamanzi, who runs Nkamira camp, which is managed by the Rwandan government in conjunction with the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme.
“The structures we have are not adequate for the number of people arriving,” Kamanzi said as camp staff and refugees set about building new shelters. Until the new structures – a wooden frame draped with white UN plastic sheeting – are ready, some refugees are still outside in the rain.
Rwanda twice sent troops into DR Congo, once in 1996 and again in 1998.
However, more recently it took part in joint military operations with the FARDC in an attempt to track Rwandan rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who are based in DR Congo.
Last week the chiefs of staff of Rwanda and the DR Congo met to discuss the situation.
Rwanda's army spokesman stressed Kigali had no intention of sending troops back across the border.
“This is a peaceful, political approach to the problem because this cannot be solved militarily,” Colonel Joseph Nzabamwita told AFP, adding that the fighting between the army units was “being exploited by FDLR” rebels.
“We have reports that they – FDLR – are reorganizing – this is a security threat to the Congolese and eventually Rwanda,” he said.