Refugees seek a better life over the border

Jean-Claude Molumba has not worked in more a month. He is a primary school teacher but it is not safe for him – or his students – to assemble for classes. Just last week, when he realised that more than 300 people in his small village had died, he decided to leave DRC and cross the border to Uganda.



In the small town of Ishasha, just 500m inside Uganda, about 7,000 Congolese refugees are gathering at a makeshift transit site, waiting for the violence in DRC to subside and return home or to take a bus to a permanent camp in Uganda to start afresh.



There are another 5,000 refugees in Uganda at the border town of Kisoro, bringing the total number of recent arrivals to about 12,000. While this is just a small number compared with the million-plus people displaced in eastern DRC, the refugees in Ishasha represent a group of people so tired of the fighting they are willing to give up life in DRC for ever.



With the help of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), every day several buses are taking hundreds of Congolese refugees from Ishasha to Nakivale, the permanent refugee settlement in western Uganda, where with a few farming implements and materials to build a house, refugees can start again.



Mulomba is waiting. His wife and their two children boarded a bus to Nakivale a few days ago, but there was no room for him. He hopes to leave for Nakivale on the next available bus.



UNHCR is encouraging refugees to move to Nakivale. If too many refugees stay in one place, so close to the border, “they could become a target”, said Stefano Severe, country representative for UNHCR in Uganda.



In DRC, rebel groups are rampaging and looting, and even refugee settlements are unsafe for most people. Human Rights Watch has released statements calling the crisis a “humanitarian disaster”, repeatedly referring to the fact that civilians are in the crossfire.














Photo: Glenna Gordon/IRIN
Not much for breakfast... DRC refugees at a transit site just inside Uganda

Most of the refugees at Ishasha have fled their homes on more than one occasion, and many have lost relatives or neighbours to the ongoing fighting among various rebel factions in DRC and an untrained and resource-poor national army.



“Anything can happen. We are informed [rebel leader Laurent] Nkunda’s forces are advancing this way,” said a local leader in Ishasha, Ben Ruwulonga, who wants the refugees to stay at a different transit site about 10km from the border. He also fears that as a district Ishasha has neither the ability nor resources to house so many refugees.



But Ruwulonga said as many as 1,500 refugees were reluctant to leave the transit camp. They want to stay put in case the fighting subsides and they can return to their homes in DRC.



Innocent Zawadi, 34, is one such refugee. He did not know where his wife was – they were separated while fleeing violence in their village – and he hoped that if he waited in Ishasha, she would eventually find him. In the meantime, he had been buying under-ripe tomatoes and other vegetables at a small market that sprung up overnight to sell to refugees.  



But there is not enough food or other provisions at Ishasha. The NGO Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) is working to install a water tank and sanitation system but feared disease would spread quickly before it could finish the work. It is also trying to start immunising children against Rubella. But with most of their resources spread thin trying to treat the massive population of internally displaced persons in DRC, Ishasha is just a blip on the crisis map.  



Uganda’s Minister for Refugees and Disaster Preparedness, Musa Ecweru, said: “Tragedies follow tragedies”, and urged the refugees in Ishasha to seek a safer and more permanent home in Nakivale.



“How can I go back to Congo? They are killing young boys,” says Mulomba, the schoolteacher. “To stay in Congo is to die.”



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