One mother tells of fleeing to save her children, the screams of her dying husband ringing in her ears
Sara Ndiozi lost more than her husband in Rutshuru, when fighting broke out between the M23 rebels and government troops in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in June. She also lost her pride.
The 28-year-old mother of three feels humiliated, sleeping in the open air with nothing to cover her children and protect them from the cold Kisoro night.
The one meal of maize and beans a day that is served at the camp keeps the young children alive, but is barely sufficient nutrition and they are hungry all the time.
“We were running away from the fighting between rebels and the government army when a bullet hit my husband,” Ndiozi narrates her ordeal, as half-naked children run wildly through the rows of white UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) tents that dot Nyakabange Refugee Transit Centre.
“I don’t know if the shooting was intentional. His wailing voice was the last I heard from him. We did not bury him. I just pushed the children to run faster and save our lives.”
Ndiozi says the images of that fateful day have not left her for a single second. Seated and swatting at the flies hovering around her head, she grieves in silence.
Ndiozi is one of tens of thousands of refugees that fled DR Congo following the break-out of fighting between rebels and the DRC army. On July 6, the streets of Kisoro town were filled with refugees fleeing fighting between troops from DRC army and the M23 rebels who had captured Bunagana and Rutshuru towns.
Calling themselves the March 23 Movement (M23), under command of Col Sultani Makenga, the group broke away from the DRC armed forces a few months ago and, along with other militia and rebel groups, has overrun most army posts in the country’s conflict-prone and largely neglected eastern region.
Along Uganda’s western border, the influx of refugees presents a humanitarian crisis.
Life or food
“We are struggling to provide the basic needs and facilities. It’s not easy to provide shelter, water, health services and food for everyone,” Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, David Kazungu, told The Independent.
Medical services are insufficient, yet those in need are many. Like many other refugee camps, Nyakabande is plagued with poor sanitation and rampant illness. Malaria is taking its toll, especially on children, and women are forced to give birth without proper aids. The first aid clinic in the camp is constantly without drugs due to the swelling numbers.
In Kisoro, where the retreating 600 DRC army soldiers were being treated, health services came under so much strain, they were transferred to Kasese.
So far, over 16,000 refugees have been registered as having entered Uganda from DRC over the past month or so. Since the beginning of the year, more than 33,500 people have been registered at the transit centre.
At the height of the fighting a few weeks ago, it was estimated that a thousand refugees were crossing the border into Uganda per day.
What once was an open green field, a sea of white UNHCR tents greet one on entry to Nyakabande Refugee Transit centre on the eastern side of Kisoro town, just 5 kilometers from the Uganda-DRC border. The white tents with the blue UNHCR logo fill a field equivalent to 6 football pitches and are full to the brim.
It is a bee-hive of activity here. Thousands of exhausted and hungry-looking men, women and children roam about the centre. Some are cooking, new arrivals standing in a queue to register, others are lining up to get a lunch meal of maize and beans. Uganda Red Cross volunteers are working overtime trying to guide whoever enters the camp on where they should go.
Because they are not getting enough food, some of the refugees, especially those with homes near the Uganda border, are risking their lives by crossing back and forth into border towns like Bunagana to collect food and supplement the relief rations they get from Nyakabinge Transit Centre.
Some are returning to their homes for good, reasoning that it is better to be killed by a bullet in their own country than to die of hunger or disease in a refugee camp. Indeed some have not been lucky to come back. They have been killed as they tried to find more food for their families.
After registration with the Uganda authorities, Ndiozi and her children are supposed to be transported to Rwamwanja Refugee Resettlement Camp in Kamwenge, where they will stay until her country stabilizes enough for to return.
“I know life will not be easy as a widow, raising my children alone. But I would prefer living that life in my own country than in a refugee camp,” Ndiozi says with teary eyes.
Other refugees tell similarly horrifying tales of escape and loss. A middle-aged man says his four children and their mother were killed by M23 rebels as they tried to flee to Goma. He was left alone.
Ugandan officials, including Prime Minister Amama Mbabzi, have said they are straining to cope with the surge of refugees, given limited resources. Uganda Red Cross Society boss Michael Nataka said they had only realized Shs 800 million of the at least Shs 1.8 billion they need to take care of the refugees in the short term. Minister of State for Disaster Preparedness Musa Ecweru said the influx of refugees had left Uganda “overstretched,” and called for international help to feed them.
In response the US Government, through its US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a contribution of more than US$3.4 million to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in support of refugees in Western Uganda. It said the donation would enable WFP to provide relief, nutrition, sensitization, and other assistance, to approximately 260,000 refugees and vulnerable Ugandans.
But UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Janet Lim, has warned that continuing instability in DRC could lead to an even larger influx of refugees.
“The situation remains very fluid across the border [in DRC’s North Kivu Province] and there is constant concern that we may yet receive a major influx which could totally overwhelm our capacity,” Lim said.