On the road with refugees fleeing DRC violence for Uganda

Thousands of Congolese refugees, including unaccompanied children, have arrived at camps in western Uganda.

Sebagoro, Uganda – It was raining heavily when we arrived on Saturday at the Sebagoro refugee transit centre in western Uganda

The previous day, 354 Congolese had crossed the nearby Lake Albert fleeing ethnic fighting between rival militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo‘s Ituri province. At least 300 people had been killed in just two weeks and some 400,000 people had been displaced. 

At the transit centre, where new arrivals were being tagged and registered, we met a 14-year-old boy who had just escaped from a village close to Lake Albert. 

Upenji James said the last image he has of his mother was of her running from a machete-wielding man. That, however, was not his first encounter with violence. 

“In 2018, I saw my father killed before my own eyes. I don’t know where my mother is or if she’s safe. I have been told my grandmother was seen back in DRC. I miss them,” he said. 

The latest outbreak of violence in Ituri is part of a decades-long conflict between militias connected to the Lendu farmers and the Hema herders. The clashes date back to the 1970s when the two groups began clashing over farmland and grazing rights.

The conflict peaked between 1999 and 2007 when more than 60,000 people were killed, according to United Nations figures. Then in 2017 and 2018, more than 100 people were killed and some 100,000 were displaced after militias pillaged and set fire to villages. 

Some Congolese say the conflict has morphed since it began decades ago, partly because of the militias’ desire to control the mineral wealth in the resource-rich region.

At the transit centre in Sebagoro, Upenji and other unaccompanied minors were given yellow wristbands.

Upenji James
Upenji James, 14, was separated from his family as he fled ethnic violence in DRC’s Ituri province [Joshua Moturu/ Al Jazeera]

Some others wore a white band to identify them as having come from Ebola-affected areas. The disease has killed more than 1,000 people in parts of eastern DRC.

We then accompanied about 100 people, including Upenji, on their journey to a reception area further inland. 

As they headed further away from their homes in a truck, the refugees appeared anxious but also resilient.

‘Whomever they caught, they slaughtered’

At the Kaguma reception centre, run by the UN refugee agency (UNHRC) and the Ugandan government, the refugees will be given three hot meals a day and officially registered as refugees. Eventually, they will be given a piece of land. They will also be able to work, take their children to school and move around the country – thanks to Uganda’s progressive policy on refugees.

Close to 4,000 refugees who have come to Uganda in recent weeks have been registered.

We met Chivonetta Ngambusi and her two children, who were settling into their new life at the reception centre.

“I heard gunshots and then saw the men. Whomever they caught up with, they slaughtered. My husband took two children and ran. I took the other two and headed a different direction to the forest. I don’t know where they went,” she said, recounting her escape from Ituri. 

Ngambusi and her children will soon be joining about 100,000 others at the Kyangwali settlement. Most of the refugees there are Congolese who have fled from conflict in Ituri over the decades. 

DRC Uganda refugees
There are 100,000 Congolese refugees at the Kyangwali settlement [Joshua Moturu/ Al Jazeera]

Our last stop that day was the settlement area where two boys were playing draft, a common board game in the settlement.

Dienjunion Monde was a Hema, while Omega Mugenyi was a Lendu. 

Meanwhile, in Ituri, a military offensive against armed groups hiding out in the forest around Djugu territory was going on

Jules Ngongo, a spokesman for the DRC military, said the troops have captured four main rebel bases, killed dozens of fighters, recovered weapons and rescued many civilians who had been held hostage and cattle that had been stolen during the attacks.

On the last day of our assignment, we saw Upenji again. 

He told us he hoped his family was safe and that he wanted to go back to school. 

Interacting with refugees makes you reflect on your life.

They expose their vulnerability, tell you stories that you cannot even begin to wrap your head around, yet they handle life with so much dignity and bravery.

Uganda DRC
Some 4,000 people who have come to Uganda in recent weeks have been registered as refugees [Joshua Moturu/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera