MATANDA TRANSIT CAMP, UGANDA — Recent clashes between militia groups in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have driven more than 3,500 refugees into neighboring Uganda. Worried about ongoing instability in their region, the refugees say they are now looking for permanent residence in Uganda.
Myesi Furaha’s village got caught in the middle of a skirmish between two rebel groups in the eastern DRC three weeks ago. When she heard bombs exploding near her house, she grabbed her three children and ran for the Ugandan border. She does not know what happened to her husband.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports the fighting, now almost four weeks old, is between the Mai Mai militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an ethnic Hutu rebel group. Like most of the refugees in the camp, Furaha says she does not expect the new round of fighting in the war-torn region to end soon.
“I cannot go back in Congo because it has been like this for very many years. I cannot go back to Congo," Furaha insisted. "I need to be in Uganda.”
Furaha is now one of more than 3,500 refugees living in Matanda Transit Camp in southwestern Uganda. Camp organizers say hundreds more are still camped out along the nearby border.
Esau Bahikayo, the camp commandant, says they are receiving about a dozen new refugees each day. Most of the arrivals are women and children. As fighting continues, he expects the numbers to increase.
“We understand there is even fighting still going on, according to the refugees we are receiving. More are coming. Right now at some border posts, we are told there are others who have already collected there,” said Bahikayo.
Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister is operating Matanda as a transit site until the refugees can be transferred to permanent locations. Bahikayo says officials will begin registering refugees for resettlement this week. They will then be taken to an U.N.-run settlement site in Rwamwanja.
The Matanda camp was originally built in 2008 to handle an earlier refugee influx from the DRC that reached nearly 30,000 people. All of the refugees were resettled, but Bahikayo says much of the infrastructure remains. There are food and water shortages, though, as well as a lack of sanitation facilities, which has raised health concerns.
“We are not giving them soap and they should have soap. If we could have some potential organizations ready for some of these items, then that would be a service to the refugees here,” explained Bahikayo.
The sanitation shortages have so far only resulted in minor illnesses, according to camp officials. Furaha’s six-month old son is one of dozens of people suffering from diarrhea.
Resources are still needed, though, to prevent more serious problems. UNHCR is one of the organizations providing support to Matanda, as well as a larger camp to the south. That camp is assisting 40,000 Congolese who fled North Kivu earlier this year after clashes between the M23 rebel group and the Congolese army. The UNHCR has called on the international community for $20 million to shore up assistance to all of the Congolese refugees in Uganda.
Bahikayo says the Ugandan government and its partner organizations are committed to finding the resources to support the refugees until they can be resettled in Uganda or return to their homes.
Even with the food and water shortages, Maria Tawiha, one of the first arrivals in the camp, says she is not considering returning to the DRC. “There are a lot of murderers in Congo, so I cannot go back,” she said.
Instead, she is willing to wait for a plot of land so she can set up a permanent home in Uganda.