The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is facing increasing difficulties in gaining access to Congolese refugees forced to return home to North Kivu from camps in Rwanda, an operation that is continuing despite a request to the government of Rwanda to stop, an agency spokesman said.
A UNHCR team was allowed into the village of Kichanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where more than 7,000 returnees have been told to settle, after long negotiations with authorities. Permission was only granted on condition the team did not interview returnees, spokesman Kris Janowski told the press in Geneva today.
Kichanga lies some 80 kilometres north of the DRC border town of Goma in the North Kivu area controlled by the rebel group Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD/Goma), which is allied with Rwanda. According to figures provided by Rwandan authorities, more than 7,500 refugees had returned to North Kivu by Thursday.
With nearly 600 refugees arriving daily, living conditions for the returnees in Kichanga and the adjacent village of Kahe are rapidly deteriorating. The water and sanitation situation has become increasingly difficult and the majority of families are living in three run-down buildings in a dilapidated tea factory, Mr. Janowski said.
Other returnees in the surrounding hills have erected tents using the worn-out plastic sheeting that had previously covered their mud dwellings in the Rwanda camps. The refugees are being returned from Gihembe camp in northern Rwanda's Byumba prefecture and from Kiziba camp, Kibuye prefecture, in an operation that began in late August.
The UNHCR team visiting Kichanga yesterday talked to an elderly woman who recounted how she was forced out of Gihembe with her husband and nine children, including her grandsons. The camp committee president, however, insisted that the woman had returned voluntarily.
Mr. Janowski said 95 refugees left Gihembe camp this morning, compared to more than 250 yesterday. The drop in numbers could be attributed to a joint Government of Rwanda/UNHCR communiqué aired on Rwanda radio last night to clarify that the return operation is meant to be voluntary and to outline the arrangements for those who decide to remain in Rwanda.
Meanwhile, reports from Rwanda indicate that an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 refugees may have fled Gihembe camp into surrounding villages to escape forced return. Sections of the camp are visibly vacated and have been destroyed. Refugees continue to sell their shelter material ahead of their departure. They spend the night outdoors before boarding trucks which come to the camps early in the morning.