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The Plight of Congolese Refugees in Uganda

Posted: 06/08/2012 10:14 am

Fighting in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is raging, and once again it's the women and children who bear the brunt of the conflict. And once again, refugees are walking night and day in search of safety, food and shelter.

From the outside, this part of the world often feels completely forgotten, pushed aside and completely misunderstood. Conflict in Congo is complicated, deadly and impacts all of its neighboring countries. I've spent a lot of time in DRC and in the region, helping where I can and showing the people that they are not forgotten.. The Congolese are some of the most resilient, most beautiful people I've ever met. To me they represent both the tragic nature and shining hope of the region.

The Congolese population has once again been taken hostage by the violence and corruption that has unfortunately become normal to their society. Night attacks targeting remote villages have forced thousands to leave everything behind in desperate search of safety for their families.

Since the beginning of April, thousands have fled to Goma, the capital of North Kivu and elsewhere in eastern Congo. Many thousands more have crossed the border to Rwanda. Another four thousand have made the trek to safety across the Ugandan border and they keep coming.

All these people share the common need for security, stability and a chance to regroup and refocus their lives. In all three countries, governments and humanitarians are scrambling to mobilize the necessary resources to assist these new refugees.

This large movement of refugees threatens a new humanitarian crisis in the region. I visited Uganda earlier this month to talk to the Congolese, understand what happened to them, how they were coping with their misfortune. With the help of the World Food Programme, I visited two refugee settlements in the southwest border region of the country.

The first settlement I visited is called Nakivale. It's the oldest one in the country, and also the most crowded. Over sixty thousand people live in the settlement and it's already considered over capacity. Despite that, more people continue to arrive every day.

At the reception center in Nakivale, a woman standing with her baby in her arms told us how she walked for two weeks to reach the Ugandan border. She said her husband was killed in the middle of the night. The only thing she knew about the men who killed him was that they had guns. After losing her husband, she felt she had to leave to protect her children. In Nikavale, the Ugandan government will give her a small plot of land to farm and the WFP will give her monthly food rations to help her find a semblance of stability and rebuild her life.

There's a reason Nakivale and other settlements are not called camps in Uganda. They are set up in the country side, in areas that are green and quiet. Most people do not live in tents, but rather in small houses -- most of them clay huts -- that they build themselves. They form little villages where refugees often live among their own communities of origin. The Ugandan government allows them to settle in the area for years depending on the individual circumstances.

There's an efficient system in place to make sure that the people's basic needs are met. The World Food Programme provides food until families are able to feed themselves, a process that can take years for single women and for those living with the trauma of their displacement. There are clinics where people receive free medical services and where WFP treats the malnourished. On the day I visited, mothers were receiving Super Cereal, a fortified mix of corn and soya flour that is specifically designed to treat malnutrition.

One of World Food Programme's most critical programs ensures that children and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers receive adequate nutrition.. This is crucial as malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child's life can lead to irreversible damage to their minds and bodies.

WFP also took me to Kyaka II, a settlement that houses sixteen thousand people, most of them from DRC. I spent the day talking to refugees, visiting their houses and listening to their concerns. As the day ended, I noticed a teenager standing a few feet away from us, barefoot, wearing clothes almost completely torn apart. When I approached him, he started explaining that he had fled Congo alone because his parents had been killed. He was in Uganda, trying to find security and cope with his loss while relying entirely on the help the World Food Programme, the Ugandan government and other organizations are providing.

After two days spent in the settlements, it's quite clear that the needs of the refugee population are great and basic; food, water, sanitation and shelter. One thing the long-term refugees have in common with the new arrivals, is that they don't see a future that involves their immediate return to their country. As one man said to me, in the settlement he and his family can sleep with their door open. If it were safe he would rather be back at home, but because it is not, he wants to keep his family where they are secure; in a settlement in Uganda.

As the violence in Congo worsens more people will flee their homes in search of safety. Uganda and WFP have done an incredible job with limited funds, but they are facing a difficult fiscal future. In Uganda alone, WFP faces a budget shortfall of millions and will soon reduce the amount of food it gives to refugees.

Over the next few months, as the refugees keep coming, more people will need assistance. It is crucial that we as compassionate Americans and globally aware citizens pay attention to what happens in this part of Africa. It is critical that the World Food Programme and other organizations have the resources they need and are able to adjust their operations and continue providing life-saving assistance despite the increase in the number of regional refugees.

They will keep coming as long as the violence in the DRC continues -- the question for us is will we keep caring?

 

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