In-depth: Congo's refugee crisis

DRC-CONGO: Concern for refugees rises as river runs low

Paddle power... The Ubangui river separates the two Congos. Many of the refugees from DRC are children
Dongou, 20 January 2010 (IRIN) - John Kanilamba sits under the porch of a half-finished house on the outskirts of Dongou - his home, despite its lack of doors and windows - since early November. His four children play idly at his feet, all refugees from inter-communal clashes in Equateur province in northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

“We were all caught in violent fighting; no one was safe,” the 39-year-old said, recounting the harrowing journey along roads littered with corpses, across the Ubangui river, to this town some 850km north of Brazzaville, in the Republic of Congo.

“Friends offered me a ride in their canoe across the river; I don’t even know how to paddle,” Kanilamba said. “I can’t see myself going back, even if the [Kinshasa] authorities say it is safe.”

For Kanilamba, the situation is desperate; for the humanitarian actors and resident families who are again opening their doors to new arrivals, it is all too familiar. Some 5,000 refugees have arrived in Dongou – among the more than 107,000 arrivals in total recorded by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the Likouala region, most of them sheltering in straw and palm frond huts on 70 sites along a 250km stretch of the Ubangui river. A major concern is that this lifeline waterway, which marks the border between the two Congos and is the only available route to deliver aid to many of the refugees, is running low due to poor rains.

“We just don’t have the resources; we made an initial appeal to assist 35,000 people, but now we have more than 107,000,” said Daniel Roger Tam, one of the regional coordinators for UNHCR. “If people don’t react, we will not be able to respond.”
The agency has managed to deliver 160MT of aid - blankets, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, sleeping mats and mosquito nets - to the most vulnerable refugees.

In addition, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has begun to deliver around 20MT of relief supplies, such as nutrition kits, tents, prescription drugs, school-in-a-box and recreation kits and water tanks to Likouala.

Medical shortages

In addition to the lack of food is a persistent shortfall in medical equipment and medical assistance. At the nearby evangelical hospital at Impfondo, US missionary doctors work round the clock to tend to the steady stream of wounded, almost all young men.

“Since the end of October, I have treated about 40 wounded; only three of them had knife wounds, the rest were gunshots,” said Joseph Harvey, the hospital’s director.

The risks to the population are also more acute because of the lack of rain; local food production is down, and health visitors who normally run mobile clinics on the Ubangui river have been forced to suspend their operations because they cannot navigate the river.


Photo: OCHA/Reliefweb

Instead, Doctors of Africa, an NGO that conducts check-ups and other medical procedures for UNHCR, has had to double the number of static clinics, from eight to 15, over 100km, said Rufin Mafouta of the agency.

Although the lack of resources poses a tremendous challenge to the humanitarians, there have been no security incidents since the refugees arrived. Those refugees who bore arms are separated from the civilians, their weapons taken away and handed over to the authorities, according to Tam.

The US and French governments have donated US$4.6 million and 400,000 euros ($568,330) respectively in response to the humanitarian appeals. France’s embassy in Brazzaville has confirmed that French forces based in nearby Gabon at Libreville will ferry supplies to Impfondo before the end of January, including vehicles, boats and other supplies vital for UNHCR to operate in the region.

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