Some 25,000 to 30,000 Congolese refugees remain on the Ugandan side of the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) after fleeing last week’s escalation in fighting among the Congolese army, renegade troops and rebels, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“They are staying close to the border, keen to go back as soon as the situation improves,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva, noting that the situation in the DRC’s strife-torn North Kivu province has somewhat calmed since last Friday.
UN agencies reported then that the upsurge in fighting was hampering efforts to deliver food aid to tens of thousands of people driven from their homes, but Mr. Redmond said the calm had allowed UNHCR to improve support for some of the estimated 35,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) stranded in the Mugunga area, 15 kilometres west of Goma, the capital of North Kivu.
Fearing an outbreak of cholera because of congestion and a lack of adequate sanitation, water and health facilities, Ugandan authorities have asked the Congolese to either move to the UNHCR-supported Nyakabanda reception centre some 20 kilometres inside Uganda or return to the DRC, Mr. Redmond said.
Inside North Kivu, some IDPs from the Sake area are reported to have returned during daylight, mainly to check their houses, amid deployment of UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) peacekeepers. But most IDPs from Sake and Masisi district continue to put up makeshift huts in the Mugunga area, awaiting more information on security conditions.
On Friday, UNHCR set up the new Bulengo camp for IDPs together with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and non-governmental organization partners and hundreds of displaced have moved from makeshift, overcrowded sites and a nearby school complex to the new camp. The new site can accommodate some 25,000 people under minimum humanitarian standards. Hundreds of families have already started constructing shelters.
“We are planning to transfer pregnant women and children by truck from makeshift camps to the new site,” Mr. Redmond said. “We remain concerned with limited access to other areas in Masisi and Rutshuru districts due to the tense security situation. We fear only a small part of the recent displacement in the North Kivu may be known and that there are other sites where humanitarian assistance has not reached.”
UNICEF is providing aid to about 60,000 people in the Muganga and Minova localities, including clean water, latrines, temporary shelter materials, bedding and cooking utensils. Vaccination against measles and neonatal tetanus is on-going for all children under the age of 14 as well as for pregnant women.
“The main victims of the deteriorating security situation in North Kivu are children,” UNICEF country representative Anthony Bloomberg said. Measles and cholera are growing dangers in the crowded makeshift camps around Goma.
Since December new IDPs in North Kivu are estimated to have surpassed 220,000 and the number continues to grow. In total, there are more than 640,000 IDPs in this eastern DRC province. The eastern DRC remains the most violent area of the vast country, where MONUC has overseen the transition from a six-year civil war to gradual stabilization elsewhere.
On the other side of Uganda, the first two of 40 IDP camps are to be closed today in the northern Lango region as a result of the improved security situation, ongoing peace talks between the Government and the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and generally improved freedom of movement, Mr. Redmond reported.
Estimates are that some 92 per cent of some 466,000 IDPs in the region at the height of the displacement in 2005 have returned. The camps were established between 2002 and 2004. But the situation is different in the Acholi region where 63 per cent of some 1.1 million IDPs remain in the camps.
“With the continuation of peace talks and continually improving security we expect to see more IDPs return to their homes,” Mr. Redmond said.
At the peak of displacement in 2005, there were 242 camps hosting 1.85 million IDPs. As of the end of June, 539,550 IDPs had returned home and some 916,000 remain in the camps. Another 381,000 moved to the new sites closer to their homes.
UN agencies are also distributing food, vaccines and other aid to those affected by heavy rainfall in eastern Uganda. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is providing a one-month food ration, while UNICEF is delivering basic household items and has begun cholera prevention measures.