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UN Rushes to Aid Refugees in Congo

  • David Axe

With at least 2 million displaced people, Congo has one of the world's largest populations of those who have lost their homes and fled their villages. Until recently, the patterns of displacement were fairly predictable. But this summer, refugees came from an unexpected direction, forcing humanitarians to adapt.

The news in May that as many as 1,500 war refugees had been reported in Bondo territory, a once peaceful region of northern Congo south of the Central African Republic, was a surprise to the UN's refugee agency. The UNHCR scurried to make sense of it.

It learned that the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that was mostly confined to regions east of Bondo, had shifted north.

"Between March and May of this year, there were several attacks in bordering region on the Central African side," said UNHCR spokesman Daniel Timme. "These attacks caused a massive displacement of 15,000 to 20,000 people. Of these 15 to 20,000, around 1,500 crossed the border into the Congo."

Once in Congo, the refugees became the responsibility of the country's U.N. workers. But there was no U.N. presence in Bondo. Without land, tools and seeds, the refugees were in danger of slowly starving. And the LRA was still a threat.

"We took the decision to create a new refugee camp a safe distance from the border," said Timme.

But Bondo lacks main roads. It's only accessible by air. So UNHCR and the UN's World Food Program airlifted more than 50 tons of supplies.

"You land in Bondo at the only airstrip in the area," said UNHCR spokesman. "From there, it's two days by motorbike to get there. The same road, the same way, had to be taken by materials and by food supplied by WFP. All these things were pushed on the backs of bicycles through narrow jungle paths."

Aid workers linked up with the first 400 refugees and prepared to escort them to the camp. The UNHCR made the video of its operations in Bondo available to VOA.

UNHCR protection officer Djamal Zamoum helped oversee the trek.

Figuring out how to transport the sick and elderly as well as people with babies was a major challenge. Zamoum decided to handle them like the food donations.

"For the vulnerable, we've arranged to move them by bicycle," said Djamal Zamoum.

The Bondo refugees were lucky. Local residents near the new camp belonged to the same ethnic group. Bondo's mayor promised close cooperation.

"We want to welcome them to our home and organize a carnival to help everyone get acquainted," said Bondo Mayor Jean de Dieu Moboya-Molangi.

As the refugees settled in, the U.N. was already monitoring the situation in Central African Republic, hoping to return the refugees to their homes.

"Having people living in a camp is of course not the ideal solution," said Daniel Timme. "So what we are always aiming at is that these people can one day move back to their villages of origin."

But continuing LRA attacks mean their return is unlikely in the short term. Indeed, the LRA could displace more people, forcing the U.N. to increase its aid in remote, under-developed Bondo.