The UNHCR says its teams have now regained access to some 35,000 Congolese refugees now on the Republic of Congo side of the Oubangui River. They are part of a larger group of some 114,000 refugees who have fled clashes sparked by fishing and farming disputes in Equateur Province in northwest Democratic Republic of Congo.
The refugee agency says its efforts in the border area are one of the most complex logistical operations it has ever undertaken in this part of Africa. UNHCR spokesperson Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba explained the conflicts in the region and the challenges her organization faces in helping the refugees:
“In Equateur Province in late October, a group of Enyele militia attacked a rival ethnic group called the Munzale over fishing and farming rights. What looked like a local conflict that has been going on for decades, all of a sudden turned out to be a major conflict that spread to the rest of Equateur Province, and as a result we had 114, 000 people flee to the northern part of the Republic of Congo and about 20,000 to Central African Republic.”
She said her agency is struggling to help the 114, 000 refugees whose only access is by the river. Lejeune-Kaba said another complicating factor is insecurity in the area:
“For five weeks we were cut off from about 35,000 of the refugees that we were trying to help and they started arriving in November of last year. The two Congos are so close. They are separated by the Ouangui River. But it’s a distance that takes less than ten minutes to cross on a speed boat.”
Lejeune-Kaba explained the daily hardships UNHCR workers face as they carry out their mission:
“With the water levels being so low, sometimes we hit sand on the river—that slows us down. We need to off-load supplies so the staff can move. This means you have staff but you don’t have supplies or you have supplies but you don’t have staff. They work seven days a week. Also they are living in almost the same condition as the refugees,” said Lejeune-Kaba.