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Congolese Refugees Flee to Uganda

As the humanitarian crisis worsens in the eastern DRC, more Congolese are crossing the border to neighboring Uganda. The main crossing point is the border town of Ishasa. Congolese refugees in the region are fleeing the military advances of the Tutu rebel group CNDP, led by Laurent Nkunda.

Amnesty International researcher Andrew Philip is watching the influx into southwestern Uganda. From Ishasa, he spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua.

"The situation there is quite distressing. There are several thousand refugees who have crossed over in the last 24 hours. Around 12:30 pm today (Thursday local time), amid the sound of gunfire from the other side of the border, the refugee flow suddenly stopped. And we understand that Ishasa town on the Congolese side of the border has been taken now by the forces of Laurent Nkunda of the CNDP," he says.

Philip describes the conditions of the Congolese refugees. "We've got a mixture of people – the old, the very young. I saw a child [who] can't be more than four limping along. Many of the people told us they've been walking for three days. One gentleman, an elderly gentleman, I spoke to had spent all of yesterday (Wednesday) walking around 20 kilometers. An elderly woman was visibly so tired she fell to the side of the road. The condition in general of people is that they're coming with very little. They're carrying what they can – mattresses, kitchenware, cooking pots and so forth. But clearly in most cases they left in an awful hurry," he says.

The Amnesty researcher says that there's apparently no security on the roads leading to the Uganda border. He says the refugees "have been subject to looting and robbery at gunpoint by what militia forces are still left. And they are fleeing the advance of the CNDP, which has been quite rapid toward the Ugandan frontier."

The town of Ishasa is actually the site of a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) transit center, which processes refugees by gathering their ID and health status and ensuring they're registered to receive aid. Philip says, "In the last few days, before this most recent influx, they were used to dealing with perhaps three or four hundred new arrivals per day. So I can say with some confidence that they're quite overwhelmed at the moment trying to deal with as many as eight to ten thousand people."

He says it appears there aren't enough supplies of food and water for all the new arrivals. UNHCR policy is to move refugees away from a border area to safer locations further inland. There are refugee camps already established in Uganda. "However, having been to one of those refugee recently, a camp called Nakivale, which is one of the biggest in Uganda, they're also feeling the strain there."

The armed groups in the area offer little if any protection for the refugees and in fact often trigger fear among the displaced.

"I think that it's clear that they fled mainly because of the CNDP advance. They are…particularly fearful, bearing in mind that most of these refugees are Hutu or (of) Hutu ancestry. They are particularly fearful of the (Tutsi-based) CNDP. But there's no reason to expect protection from either the government army, which in fact fled the area two or three weeks ago, or from local Mai Mai militia, [which say] they protect the local population but in fact are mainly responsible for…armed robbery of those that have been fleeing. And indeed MONUC (UN forces) unfortunately…wasn't present in that area during the time of the movements of these refugees," he says.

With refugees needing "urgent protection," Amnesty International is calling on the UN Security Council to approve more peacekeepers for the DRC. The Security Council recently approved another 3,000 troops for eastern Congo, but some analysts question whether the increase is enough. Philip says the refugees need protect from the CNDP, the Mai Mai and even the national army.