After their home in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was burnt by armed men, Lina and Gafishi, along with their three young children, fled. Now after almost two months in hiding, desperately trying to find sanctuary, they have arrived at Nkamira transit centre in Rwanda. Twenty kilometres from the border with the DRC, this transit centre is now home to more than 11,000 Congolese refugees.
Every day, UNHCR trucks arrive from the border with around 200 frightened, tired and hungry people. The majority of them are women and children, all with similar stories of villages being attacked and frightened by men with guns. Many are not sure, or simply do not say, which faction or rebel group has come waving weapons and threatening them with their lives.
In the complicated messy world of Eastern DRC with its legacy of decades of war, exploitation of natural resources and too many weapons, it is hard to figure out who are the good guys. In the last two months, nearly 21,000 Congolese have had to flee to Rwanda and Uganda, and nearly 33,000 people have been pushed into existing camps in South Kivu. The province, already beset with its own security challenges, is now home to over 865, 000 internally displaced people.
For Lina, who wishes she was back home tending to her small farm, there is no possibility of return until there is security and peace. So the immediate challenge, especially as it is the rainy season, is where to house all these new refugees and make sure their basic needs are met.
Richard Ndaula of UNHCR and the Emergency Team Leader for the UN in Rwanda, is in charge of coordinating the humanitarian response. “Each sector is headed by a different UN agency that works closely with the NGOs and the Rwandan Government to make sure we are able to meet the growing needs in health, water, sanitation hygiene, food security and shelter,” he explains. He says so far the response has been impressive but with the influx of refugees continuing on a daily basis, he acknowledges more funds will quickly be needed, especially if there is no immediate end to the fighting.
Richard’s role is to manage one of the three existing refugee camps in Rwanda that are home to an estimated 54,000 Congolese. “The Rwandans have been generous. Not only in letting the asylum seekers in but also sharing the resources they have, especially when we know the country has its own challenges in terms of land and jobs,” he says. His biggest priority is supporting a longer term solution. Already the Government of Rwanda has identified land for a new refugee camp in the south of the country, and preparations to receive the first group of refugees are underway.
The transit camp, originally opened 18 years ago, has worn the test of time. The most recent influx before the current crisis was in 2008. And since then it has been used to temporarily house Rwandan refugees returning back from Eastern DRC. Along the main road to Rwanda’s capital city Kigali, it signifies the fragile nature of the border and the regional consequences of this latest round of instability on all the countries in the region.
The existing 10 tent hangars, each supposed to cater to 100 people, are now well beyond capacity. Ten more built in the last few weeks are also full. So in a desperate effort to find more shelter, the Government of Rwanda has handed over the milk factory next door to add to the available space.
In a huge high walled barn, where the only light is from rays of sunshine that creep through the corrugated sheets of roofing, 1,500 people have marked out their own small piece of turf. Littered with piles of old clothes, a few pots and pans and old pieces of form mattresses, children and mothers lie around in small groups. Some who were not able to flee with their own few belongings have collected piles of grass to lie on instead of the cold hard floor. Near the milking troughs, older children take it in turn to cook their daily meal with pieces of charcoal and wood on small metal braziers. Each family has been given a ration of maize meal, beans, sugar and cooking oil for the month.
With overcrowding comes the worry of limited sanitation and hygiene and the spread of communicable diseases. A handful of refugees were treated for acute watery diarrhoea, but efforts continue to ensure a safe water supply, hygiene education and a campaign to vaccinate children against measles and polio.
Anitha has brought her two-year-old child to be vaccinated. Health workers from the Red Cross have also given her child a vitamin A supplement to boost her immunity and a deworming tablet. She and her five children have found a small space in the dairy where they contemplate what their future will bring. She worries for her husband, who they left behind in hiding, hoping to protect their small property.
According to Deborah Kortso Collison, UNICEF Rwanda’s Nutrition Officer, this vaccination campaign is important to protect children from an outbreak of disease, especially when many are in poor state of health and coming from areas where vaccination coverage is low and there are ongoing cholera and measles epidemics. An emergency nutrition survey of the refugee children, aged between 6 and 59 months, already indicates that malnutrition is an issue.
Three vaccination points have been set up at the camp. Children snake around the tent patiently waiting their turns. Every child under the age of fifteen is being targeted for the campaign. A factory-like approach is being used, as each child stretches out his arm for a dab of disinfectant and then a needle jab. As they leave, a black mark is placed on their thumbnail to identify their vaccinated status.
One of the few younger men loitering around, going by the name of Desire, says he had to leave or was at risk of being recruited to fight. At 21 years old, he says there is no future for young men like him. He is not sure what will happen next or even what he can do but knows he had to leave if wanted to escape the gun.
For 14-year-old Prince, who fled with his mother and now walks with wooden clutches, the loss of his leg is a constant reminder of the conflict he left behind. In January, his whole leg was blown off in a grenade accident. After months of being in hospital and missing school, he too wanders around aimlessly.
Ndayambaye, 22, has become a volunteer at the child friendly spaces set up by UNICEF and Save the Children in an effort to keep kids busy. Wearing a bright red bib, he and a few others beat a big drum and round up the younger children using a mega phone. Each day, every couple of hours, they conduct a different type of activity. It makes him feel better that he is doing something useful with his time. “It helps parents have time to sort out chores and keeps the kids distracted.”
As the academic year in DRC is just about to close, a delegation from the DRC Education Department visited the transit camp and has agreed that eligible school students could still sit their final year exams. It is good news for 15-year-old Claudine, who misses her studies more than anything else. She says she can cope with the lack of sleep from all the noise, and the hunger but her biggest worry is her schooling. Along with more than 200 students, she has been registered to salvage what could have been a lost year of study. A four hour exam will be supervised by officials from DRC with support from the Government of Rwanda, UNHCR and UNICEF.
For 24-year-old Odette, fully pregnant at the time, the journey across the border was long and painful. Thankfully, Kisubizo, her tiny newborn son, waited to reach the safety of the dairy barn. She was lucky - a neighbour helped with the delivery and today she is able to rest. When asked about her future, and that of her children, she says all she can do is pray.
Shantha Bloemen is Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Johannesburg.