My wife Gosia is currently working in Western Uganda to support CARE, the NGO she is working with, in kick-starting an emergency response to the influx of more than 70,000 refugees who arrived since January 2018 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Uganda. I joined her for more than two weeks and gathered stories and pictures of people fleeing violence in their home country for CARE in Uganda. The Congolese told me how they had to leave their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, fearing for their children’s lives as armed groups attacked their villages. The people I spoke to shared horrific tales of how they fled, many for the second time in their lives. Young girls and women have been raped, abused, beaten; parents have lost their children, and children had to watch their parents die before starting the journey across Lake Albert all by themselves. While talking, most refugees stayed calm on the outside, no one broke into tears while telling me what happened. The circumstances of life in DRC seem to harden people. At the same time, people in the settlement seem to be relieved that they are now safe. They try to build up a new life, and to find joy and happiness again.
Marine police officers watching lake Albert at the landing site in Sebagoro, where up to 3 000 refugees arrived every day in February and March 2018. When I visited Sebagoro in April, the numbers reduced to an average of 200 a day. In the morning of my visit, we found less than 50 arrivals from the previous night at the shore.
Many refugees don’t arrive at the landing site in Sebagoro, but in one of the villages at the Ugandan shore of lake Albert. After a conversation with the village elder, the police asks new arrivals to proceed to Sebagoro. In case of emergency, the police could also take refugees in their boat to Sebagoro. From the landing site, refugees are transported to the reception centre in Kyangwali settlement where they get registered and await land allocation
The fishermen are another valuable source of information for the marine police regarding influx of people from DR Congo. Many fishermen we met on this patrol were actually Congolese. Depending on the season, the best fishing grounds on lake Albert may be on the Congolese or on the Ugandan side of the lake and Ugandan and Congolese fishermen move accordingly.
Gloria (19) arrived to Sebagoro overnight with her husband and their 2-year old daughter. Back home, she was a small scale farmer, and her husband was a fisherman. Though the violence hadn’t reached her village, the young family decided to leave DRC. Gloria said that there had been many mass killings with attackers using machetes to cut people to pieces, burning down houses and stealing livestock in the nearby villages. The family has reached Sebagoro unharmed, but had to leave almost everything behind.
Isaac (68) and his wife Furaha (52) fled from their home in Joo with two of their children when their village was attacked one morning. They have taken only some clothes and a tarpaulin on the boat to Uganda.
Basa (27), the son of Furaha and Isaac, lived with his brother and sister in a town called Bunia. A month after his parents left to Uganda, Basa followed them when hostilities reached their home town. After the time of uncertainty, the family is relieved and very happy to be reunited. However, having lost everything but their lives, they struggle with lack of food and hygiene materials. They would like to rebuild their livelihood, but that is difficult without money.
This girl’s father died 10 years ago of malaria. Four months ago, the young girl was raped in her home village and got pregnant. Later, when her village was attacked, she fled with her mother to Uganda, but unfortunately, in the refugee settlement, her mother died of cholera. The girl was then assigned to an elder man as a guardian, but is now alone with little food since he is in hospital. CARE referred her to a medical facility and provided her with money for food while local authorities sort out her registration and food card. I was touched when I saw her again, but this time smiling after she received initial assistance from CARE.
19-year old Esther is one of the young women who are assisted by CARE. More than one year ago she was raped in her home town and got pregnant. Two months ago, when her village was attacked, she ran away with other villagers to the shore of lake Albert and took a boat to Uganda. Her mother, who was with her baby when Esther fled, reached the landing site Sebagoro in Uganda four days later. Since then, Esther has heard nothing from her father who at the time of attack was tending to cattle in the mountains. Though it is not easy for her, she accepts her child: „I love my baby, but I’ve no other choice“. In Kyangwali she lives with her mother, but should ideally move out due to disagreements she has with her parent, who doesn’t believe that her daughter was raped.
Ani was 6-month pregnant when she fled with her husband from DR Congo in March. She is very worried about the part of her family that remained in DR Congo and whom she cannot contact since she left home.
Francine (18) fled from home together with her parents and three brothers when their village was attacked. On the way to the shore of lake Albert, they ran into an ambush. Men armed with Kalashnikov and machetes came out of the bush and forced them on the ground. After one attacker hit her brother’s head with a machete and was about to kill all of them, another attacker intervened and let her and her little brother run away. When she was fleeing the ambush after having witnessed her parents and brothers being brutally slaughtered, she was attacked by three men who raped her. She was found the next day by people also fleeing from atrocities in Eastern DR Congo, who brought her to a boat to Uganda at the shore of lake Albert. Having arrived in the reception centre in Kyangwali, she confided in an officer working at CARE protection information desk. She was send quickly to the health centre for examination and treatment and receives psycho-social support by CARE staff that will continue after she will be relocated to the settlement.
With only 16 years Clementina is already mother of a 8-month old baby. She was raped on her way to school in her home village in DR Congo. Two months ago, when her village was attacked and neighbours were shot, she run away to hid in the bush with her baby. Later on, she embarked on a journey to Uganda on a rowboat boat with six other people from her village. It took them three days along the shore of the lake to reach their destination. At night they slept in the bush and moved during the day. Her mother is still in DR Congo because at the time of attack she was in hospital recovering from a back injury after a road traffic accident. Clementina has not heard from her mother since her departure to Uganda. As a single mother, she is eligible for receiving assistance by CARE.
Before arriving in Uganda I had only seen refugee camps in newspapers. When I saw the settlement on the green hills in Kyangwali, I was positively surprised. Here, refugees don’t live in tightly squeezed huts or tents. Instead, each family in Kyangwali gets a plot of land that is big enough to build a small house and plant crops and vegetables. The Ugandan government has put a policy in place which allows refugees to build up a life, allows them to work and move freely in the country. Remarkable, given that the country is hosting close to 1.4 million refugees, out of which more than 276,570 are Congolese.
An unfinished house that will replace the temporary shelter where the refugee family is staying at the moment (on the right)
Posho, maize flour cooked with water, is prepared in the reception centre for refugees who receive ready-to-eat meals while they wait for registration
CARE is training volunteers on the tool used to map pregnant women living in the settlement to ensure that they receive proper medical assistance during their pregnancy
Camille (48) is enthusiastic of her engagement with CARE: „It’s a good job for me, because we work against violence like it is written in the Bible.“
Before studying geology, Pierre worked one year for a French NGO raising awareness against gender based violence (GBV) in DR Congo
Evette, one of CARE volunteers, shows me the picture of one of her sons with his wife, who are still in DR Congo. She always has the picture with her. „I’m so worried about my children and grandchildren. When I have enough money I will go back and bring them to Uganda.“
Vanda fled to Uganda with her five children and one granddaughter. She likes to work as a volunteer and said „It is important to tell the people what is good and what is bad. And we as CARE volunteers tell people that sexual harassment and abuse is bad.“
Joseph fled with his wife and five children to Uganda in February. As a volunteer he wants to help his community in Kyangwali refugee settlement.
Many refugees are helping others as volunteers in the settlement. They explain to the people who newly arrive how the settlement is organised, where to get food, soap and other hygiene items and construction material for shelters. Volunteers are also helping to build houses for those who cannot do it on their own, like the elderly or single women. They also raise awareness about good hygiene practices. Volunteers are trained by organisations like CARE – they really are the bridge between the needs and the response. At the same time, it is also a way for them to work again after losing their livelihoods back home. CARE has set up a psycho-social support centre, a community centre where people can seek help and find a safe space. Volunteers are visiting other refugees in the settlement and are raising awareness about gender based violence. They explain what gender based violence is and let everyone know that CARE is there to help. There are two separate rooms in the centre that allow for privacy during conversations with survivors of gender based violence. While I was there, refugees and volunteers were also rehearsing a play about gender based violence. The group was so dedicated that I am sure their message will reach the other refugees and raise awareness about violence against women.
I was deeply impressed by the volunteers and how refugees helped each other. I met a family who is taking care of three boys they found at the landing site at Lake Albert, where the small boats from DRC arrive. The three kids fled alone to Uganda after having to watch how their father was killed by armed men. They themselves already have seven children of their own, yet they opened their little refugee hut and hearts to the orphans. I also remember a mother who fled alone with her only child when her village was attacked. She has not heard from her husband since she arrived to Uganda four months ago and she does not know whether he is still alive. When she reached Uganda at the shores of Lake Albert, she saw three children whose parents were killed and who had to flee alone. Despite her own difficult situation, she now takes care of the siblings who have no one else left to care for them in their lives. I admire how those people who preserve their kindness and humanity, after having gone through “hell on earth”.
David and his family fled to Uganda for the second time. Since one month, his wife has been engaged with CARE as a volunteer working against gender based violence. They are taking care of three orphaned boys that they found alone at the landing site in Sebagoro.
Esther told me her story while preparing sweet potato leaves next to her her shelter. She hasn’t heard from her husband since she fled alone from DR Congo with her only child. Despite her difficult situation, she invited three orphans to live with her and her daughter in the small shelter.
All names have been changed.
Thanks to Johanna, Global Humanitarian Communications Coordinator of CARE International, you can read the stories of the refugees I met also on various CARE websites, Twitter, Instagram as well as on the news platform Thomson Reuters.
A big thank you to Johanna for correcting and reworking my article!