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01 09 12 Think Africa - DRC: The Human Costs of Conflict

Refugees who fled the violence in the eastern DRC to neighbouring Uganda recount their experiences.

A view in South Kivu, DRC. Photograph by t.pcox.

Kampala, Uganda:

The conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has worsened this month. Fighting has escalated and two weeks ago United Nations and Congolese government troops used helicopter gunships to shell suspected rebel positions in North Kivu. Their engagement displays a lack of patience with the rebels.

But the civilians paying the price of war in the eastern DRC lost their patience long ago. The effects of the war on innocent civilians who cannot defend themselves against armed rebels have been catastrophic. Many have lost their lives and many others have been forced to flee their homes. It is these civilians that perhaps best understand what war really means.

Waging war

In April, clashes erupted in the eastern DRC between the Congolese army and a group of army mutineers, known as M23, reportedly demanding better pay and living conditions. Others, however, allege that the conflict stemmed from the DRC President Joseph Kabila's desire to arrest Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda.

Ntaganda had been a Tutsi rebel warlord operating in eastern DRC until 2009 when he was integrated into the Congolese army as part of an undisclosed peace deal. Before that, however, in 2006, he had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for recruiting child soldiers and committing crimes against humanity. Earlier this year pressure on Kabila to arrest Ntaganda grew and Ntaganda deserted, allegedly taking several mutineers with him.

Refugees’ stories

Since conflict restarted in April, more than 30,000 Congolese refugees are said to have fled to Uganda and this number is expected to increase as the fighting continues. As a result, UN organisations in Uganda announced a $7 million emergency fund earlier this month to facilitate the humanitarian response to the influx of refugees.

Deborah (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), one of the many uprooted by the conflict, recounted her story to Think Africa Press.

“Since December 2007, I was living happily with my family in South Kivu. I was working to support my family since my husband was killed by rebels in the first Congolese War of 1996. In late 2011, my whole life completely changed after the rebels attacked our home one night, raped almost all the women in the house including myself and then killed them together with some children. I was lucky and escaped; my children ran as the rebels were raping others.”

After escaping, she trekked the jungles of Congo en route to Bunagana on the border with Uganda. On the way, she was raped countless times. Although she had believed her children to have been killed by rebels, to her surprise, she found them in Uganda in a Catholic mission. She crossed to Kisoro district then boarded a lorry to Uganda’s capital Kampala. Now she and her three children reside in one small rented room in Kampala, and she believes she is one of the luckiest refugees, having escaped with her family intact.

Like Deborah, Sylvia (name also changed) had her life turned upside by the conflict and was uprooted to Uganda. Rebels attacked her home and, when her husband tried to stop them raping her, they killed him.

“We were staying in Walikale in North Kivu. The rebels attacked our home and ordered my husband to carry our child and run as far as possible. But when he resisted, they used their guns and knives to kill him. They took [the rest of] us as captives. We walked miles and miles; my child died on the way. When we reached Masisi, the government forces ambushed the rebels and from there, most of us ran from the rebels. We walked for weeks till we reached western Uganda and then came to Kampala in May”, she recounted.

Rwandan involvement

As well as Congolese civilians fleeing to Uganda following the conflict, there are also eastern Congolese who were in Uganda prior to the recommencement of fighting and who are reluctant to return.

One Congolese student, who graduated this year with Masters in Public Administration and Management from Kampala International University, explained his fears and understanding of the conflict to Think Africa Press:

“The rebels in Congo are being supported by the Rwandan government. Rwanda wants to take part because of the rich minerals. The parts which Rwanda wants to take are Kisangani, South Kivu, North Kivu and Maniema.”

He believes Rwanda is fuelling the war in his country because of the mineral coltan. The rebels who are fighting his government are concentrated in mineral-rich areas and that is the reason why, according to the student, “the rebels say they want negotiations but not to overthrow Joseph Kabila’s government. The negotiations the rebels want is to give them part of Congo.”

The student’s allegations of Rwanda supporting rebels follow those made by the UN and DRC government. Rwanda President Paul Kagame has been quick to deny these claims and argued that he could not be supporting the rebels because he does even not know what they are fighting for. In spite of his pledges of innocence, however, the US recently announced that it would be reallocating $200,000 worth of military aid previously destined for Rwanda.

Seeking refuge

The refugees who arrived in Uganda at the end of June this year via the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency say fighting, killing and rape have become the order of the day back in eastern DRC.

In Kampala’s suburbs, the number of Congolese refugees is increasing every day. According to Sakura Atsumi, Deputy Representative for the UNHCR in Uganda, about 1,000 refugees cross the border into Uganda every day. Once they arrive, some forge their way to Kampala, adding to the growing number of Congolese who have sought refuge in the city since the clashes began.

Those in Uganda struggle and many are forced to resort to illegal activities as a means of survival. But, as Deborah recounted, many feel lucky just to be alive.

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