NAIROBI (AlertNet) – Fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has pushed almost 17,000 refugees into Uganda over the last five days and there could be more displacement to come, aid agencies say, as the vast country grapples with the worst clashes in years.
Congo's north Kivu province has been shaken by violence since late March after hundreds of former rebels defected from the army in support of a renegade general, Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for suspected war crimes.
The mutiny risks dragging the loosely governed central African state back into war and damaging fragile relations with neighbouring Rwanda, which has repeatedly denied allegations that the rebels are receiving cross-border support.
“We ran from too many gunshots that went on throughout the night,” said Bwema Matata, one of the refugees being transported from a border transit camp to Rwamanja refugee camp in Uganda.
“My parents died. My siblings have been killed. So we had to run. We ran to the border,” Matata told AlertNet.
Most of the refugees are women and children.
“The majority of them walk long distances. So by the time they get to the border, they are tired. They are worn out. They have swollen legs. Some have stomach upsets,” said Catherine Ntabadde, spokeswoman for the Uganda Red Cross.
Children often get separated from their parents while women suffer rape and other forms of harassment, Ntabadde said.
Some of the male refugees are fleeing forcible recruitment by armed groups.
“I fear to go back to Congo because they force us to join the military,” said Ramathan Bashaka, another new arrival in Uganda told AlertNet.
“We are just civilians. They fight. When they get defeated they come and conscript people into the army.”
MORE WILL BE DISPLACED
The so-called M23 rebels seized two towns from fleeing government forces last week, opening the way for a possible advance on Goma, the provincial capital about 70 km (43 miles) to the south.
Rwanda is also receiving some 250 refugees per day, according to Oxfam, which is working in Rwanda’s Nkamira refugee camp, 20 km from the border with Congo.
“That could increase again if M23 move closer to Goma,” said Alun McDonald, a spokesman for Oxfam in East Africa.
“It certainly looks likely that more people will be displaced as the conflict carries on.”
Nkamira has received some 15,000 refugees since the end of April.
It only has the capacity to host 5,000 people so the Rwandan government has been moving people to another camp at Kigeme in southwest Rwanda, McDonald said.
Kigeme is a former refugee camp from the 1990s that was reopened last month because of the upsurge in fighting and displacement.
The situation is mirrored in Uganda, where the United Nations is resettling refugees in Rwamanja, a camp that has also been reopened after closing down several years earlier.
“The services at the site are insufficient to meet the basic needs of this population. This has resulted to a dire humanitarian situation,” said the ACT Alliance, a group of church-based aid agencies, in an appeal.
ACT said that more than 5,000 refugees share each water source, which they have to walk an average of 3 km to reach.
“Congestion at the water points has caused tensions between the refugees and the host community,” it said, adding that an additional 108 water sources are urgently needed.
“We’re overstretched,” Musa Ecweru, state minister for disaster preparedness and refugees told a press conference in Kampala on Tuesday, appealing for international support.
Oxfam estimates that 450,000 people have been displaced within eastern DRC since the start of the year. Humanitarian agencies are unable to reach many of those in need because of insecurity.
There are over two million internally displaced people in eastern DRC.
(Additional reporting by Justin Dralaze in Kisoro and Elias Biryabarema in Kampala)