Congolese from North Kivu flee to Uganda

July 11, 2012

Congolese from North Kivu flee to Uganda © Brigitte Rossotti/MSF

Since May, more than 25,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have crossed from North Kivu province into southwestern Uganda, fleeing clashes between the DRC’s army and rebel groups.

On July 4, fighting neared border town Bunagana and the flow of new arrivals intensified. Vincent, 30, is one of them. "We fled because we were frightened by the fighting between the army and the rebels,” he said.

“There is an African proverb that says, 'When two elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.' I left the region of Rutshuru with my family to find safety in Uganda until things settle down."

Refugees are transported to the Nyakabande transit center on the outskirts of Kisoro, which is usually a calm tourist hub for travelers desirous to spot the rare mountain gorillas.

The camp includes approximately 400 tents that have been set up in a huge field against the backdrop of the 13,500-feet-high Muhabura volcano. The population registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now above 10,000, which exceeds the initial capacity of the site. Several humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), are providing shelter, water, food and health care to the families.

Brigitte Rossotti, MSF's operations coordinator on site, says, "The waves of new arrivals depend on where the fights are happening. Some people have walked for weeks to reach Uganda, hiding in the forest to avoid dangerous encounters. Others left in the morning and arrive in the afternoon.”

Cholera is another threat; an epidemic is already underway in DRC Congo, raising the fear that cross-border movements could carry the disease into Uganda. Careful monitoring is required to identify any suspicious cases and contain the risk of contagion.

Some of the refugees at the Nyakabande site are waiting for the situation in DRC to stabilize before returning home. They worry about having soon to leave the camp, which is normally for transit only and considered too close to the border by the Ugandan authorities.

Others have decided to settle in Uganda. Nearly 18,000 Congolese have thus been transferred to the permanent Rwamwanja site, which is an old refugee camp that the Ugandan government reopened in mid-April. It is located in a forested region in the country's interior, one day's travel from Kisoro. Each family receives a parcel of land to farm and supplies, while several NGOs are working to improve access to drinking water and health care.

"The current situation requires humanitarian presence at both sites—Nyakabande and Rwanwanja—simultaneously," says Ruben Pottier, MSF's head of mission in Uganda. "If refugees continue to arrive at this rate, more aid will be needed."

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