Focus on Ituri refugees in Uganda

Gilbert Balikya radiates enthusiasm for a cause he knows he must support. In the sweltering heat of Rwebishengo (1.03N 30.16E), a little remote township on the Ugandan side of the border with the DRC, his presence as a Congolese medical doctor meets with warm approval of his role of volunteer health worker.

Yet, like thousands of other residents, Balikya is also a refugee, who fled from Ituri into Uganda in August 2002.

"I used to work as a doctor in Boga Hospital. That hospital belongs to the Anglican church in the DRC, but in August, I and my family had to run for our lives because of frequent attacks by Lendu tribal militia," Balikya, a Hema, told IRIN. With his family of 17, he now lives in Rwebishengo and is chairman of a local initiative to settle the ever-increasing number of Hema refugees fleeing armed groups, particularly those of the Lendu, which ravage many parts of Ituri. Lendu militiamen burnt down his home in Boga.

Although his jobs of chairman and medical doctor in this border-trading centre are unpaid, Balikya can still count himself lucky by virtue of the fact that he is still alive.

However, the Rev Harry Basimaki of Boga diocese was less fortunate. On 2 September, ethnic militiamen hacked him to death at Burasi, near Semliki, six kilometres from the border with Uganda, while he was returning to the DRC to retrieve a travel document to enable him to travel to Kenya. "He was split into pieces and some parts of his mutilated body were chopped off. His remains were found in a nearby bush by some herdsmen a week later," said Mugenyi Bomera, a Hema chief of Bahema South, who is also a refugee in western Uganda.

Like Balikya and many others, Mugenyi, in spite of being a chief, had had to flee from Ituri with 13 members of his family before armed youths attacked and destroyed his home and property at Bunyagu village on 6 May.

Although there are no official estimates of the number of Congolese refugees in western Uganda, when IRIN visited Rwebishengo, Karugutu and Butuku, the residents estimated there were 7,000. They comprise all categories of people, who have had to walk at least 200 km into safety with over 30,000 head of cattle.

These refugees do not live in camps, but are scattered across neighbouring border villages and town centres, where they rent houses or single rooms for whole families, and receive relief assistance from the Rev Njojo Byankya, the archbishop of Boga.

The initial influx of refugees occurred in May 2002, coinciding with an upsurge of fighting in Ituri. However, there has been another influx since October, with refugees crossing with their cattle, goats and other belongings following a resurgence of ethnic strife in the region.

As the number of Congolese seeking refuge in Uganda continues to grow, the Ugandan minister of state for disaster preparedness, Christine Amongin Akol, has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis requiring urgent action.

Health workers in the centres where the refugees have gathered say the most common diseases affecting them are malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory infections. There are almost no medical and sanitation services available to the refugees. The Anglican Church in Boga funds the only medical centre in Rwebishengo. Byankya is also donating maize flour beans, salt and soap to the refugees.

In terms of accommodation, an average room of three square metres costs a family of six a monthly rental of 20,000 Uganda shillings (US $10) in most parts of western Uganda where the refugees have settled.

The most recent escalation of fighting between the Lendu and Hema communities has been most extreme in the Djugu and Irumu areas of Ituri, which respectively comprise 11 and 12 residential centres occupied by different sub-ethnic groups of the Lendu and Hema, as well as other peoples such as the Ngiti, Nande and Alur, according to local sources.

Hema refugees have tended to flee into the Ugandan districts of Bundibugyo and Fort Portal, where they have close ethnic ties with the Banyoro, and have settled in places such as Rwebishengo, Karugutu and Butuku.

The Nande, on the other hand, have fled to the North Kivu areas of Beni and Butembo in the DRC, and to Kasese in Uganda, which is home to their Nande cousins. The Alur, who also have cousins in Uganda, have fled to the Aruu, Nebbi and Mahagi areas.

[The tragedy of Ituri is examined in detail in a new IRIN Web Special issued today and accessible on the following link: http://www.irinnews.org/webspecials/Ituri]