Over 200,000 people in Eastern Congo have fled their homes since April because of the recent fighting between the government army and the M23 rebels. Many are displaced within the DR Congo, while tens of thousands have fled over the borders into neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.
Past experiences of killings, abductions and rape – by both rebel groups and the government army – mean that people are quick to get out of the way when fighting starts. They don’t wait to see if an advancing militia is one to target civilians or not. Civilian casualties in this conflict, so far, have been low – that must be in part due to the fact that the traumatised population flees at the very first signs of violence, leaving behind eerie, deserted villages, fresh with signs of recent life but not a soul in sight.
The upheaval of moving to a new country is enormous. A wealthier minority can pack their goods in a car, then rent a room across the border, and wait and see if the situation stabilises. But the vast majority – subsistence farmers – flee on foot, carrying whatever they can on their heads.
In Uganda, the new arrivals are transported in trucks to the Nyakabande refugee transit centre, about 8km from the now rebel-controlled border town of Bunagana. Since I last visited in mid-May, it has now more than doubled in size – a rapidly expanding ocean of tents, home to over 14,000 people. It’s meant to be a temporary stop-over, with people being moved on to long-term refugee settlements deeper inside Uganda within about two weeks of their arrival.
Many people say they would prefer not to travel far from the borders - they want to be able walk across to harvest food from their gardens, and wait close by so they can return home as soon it is safe enough.
But for the less-wealthy refugees, one of the many things they lack is the freedom of choice. Local residents at the border town understandably do not want thousands of refugees sleeping on their streets, so local authorities move them to the transit camp. People there depend largely on food handouts. It is a temporary solution, and so the Ugandan government and the UN move people to the remote long-term settlements, and allocate plots of land so they can start farming. Once there, hundreds of kilometres from home, the only chance of going home is if or when the authorities or the UN organise a repatriation programme.
And it is not just civilians on the run – Congolese government soldiers have been fleeing in their hundreds too, under rebel attack.
At the remote hilltop border post of Busanza we met men who claimed to be cattle-herders running from the fighting, but the border town officials suspected they were deserting soldiers trying to pass as civilians. Combatants are not entitled to refugee status, and are normally sent back. Just days before, about 600 of their comrades fled, armed and in uniform, over the Ugandan border at Bunagana when rebels attacked. They were disarmed and taken into custody by Ugandan soldiers, to be sent back home via another border.
Congo’s army is one of the poorest in the world. Standards of training are not high, many soldiers often go unpaid for long periods, and so morale is low. You can understand why they are quick to flee in the face of a superior enemy. And since fleeing over the border only means being sent back to fight, just days later, then if you can pull it off, fleeing undercover as a civilian is an obvious choice. If successful, you’ll be taken to a refugee camp, where at least you won’t be shot at.
The fleeing soldiers and civilians alike all just want the same thing – peace, so they can go home and get on with their lives. But peace has been illusive in Eastern Congo for nearly two decades, and with the rebels advancing determined to have their demands met, and the government unwilling to negotiate but struggling to fight, it looks like those who fled won’t be going home anytime soon.