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DRC Refugees Pour into Uganda, Violence in North Kivu Region

By Airi Price

Guerrilla warfare has faithlessly defined global perceptions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since the mid-20th century. So much so, that the BBC recently reported that the DRC is so often made synonymous with the terms, “Africa's world war” and “a failed state”. The history of this war is rather complex, integrating the ethnic, political, and economic tensions between an estimated 100 catalogued rebel groups. Domestic conflict was initially prompted by Hutu génocidaires fleeing into the DRC from the East, as they sought refuge from acknowledgement of their crimes during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. A string of subsequent opposition groups manifested in response to Hutu presence, inciting a multi-nation conflict throughout the Eastern Congo region.

DRC’s political limitations in regulating groups, coupled with an 18-year period of authoritarian rule, inspired further violent encounters between such groups up to present day. The continued presence of UN peacekeepers (first arriving in 1960) offered little relief, as their 16,000-strong personnel struggled to prevent paramilitary groups from overtaking under-governed regions of the DRC.

To date, an estimated 4.5 million people have been left internally displaced and another 800,000 have fled the DRC, primarily seeking asylum in Uganda and other neighboring countries.

Perhaps decades of persistent conflict have contorted the magnitude of tensions present in the country, however, the reality of escalating violence became grimly apparent this past month. Refugee spillover into Uganda reached concerning numbers on the night of Sunday November 7th, 2021, where 11,000 people emigrated from DRC in just a single day. As the UNCHR reports, such an estimate represents the highest number of refugees recorded for one day in recent years.

This recent surge of attacks had arisen in the form of gunmen overtaking the two nearby villages of Tshanzu and Runyoni. Assistant to the administrator of Rutshuru territory, Lieutenant-Colonel Muhindo Luanzo, has declared the gunmen to be members of the March 23 Movement (M23), a long-standing rebel group in the North Kivu province.

Luanzo reports that the villages were raided simultaneously close to 11 pm Sunday night. Of those who fled, the majority were women and children from the Binja, Kinyarugwe, or Chanzu villages located in the Rutsuru territory of North Kivu, DRC. As most travelled by foot, families were then forced to prioritize a small collection of belongings and

livestock to carry on their backs while running from impeding danger. Even as they distanced themselves from the violence in their local communities, refugees continued to face threats to their health and safety. The absence of shelter, food, medical care, and other emergency materials only exacerbated their underlying, and ever-growing, exhaustion.

Given the extraordinary size of Sunday’s refugee population, humanitarian officials fear that aforementioned stresses may not be alleviated upon arrival at the Ugandan Border. Of the 11,000 asylum-seekers, 8,000 crossed over into the town of Bunagana in Uganda’s Kisoro District as another 3,000 left the DRC via Kibaya, another town in the District, as reported by Save The Children. The nearest intake center, Nyakabande Transit Center, is located about 6 miles from the entry points. Given the limitations in transport, only 500 refugees have been relocated to the Center – leaving most fatigued refugees to spend the night camping at borders whilst awaiting transfer, per UNHCR. The Nyakabande Transit Center maintains a maximum capacity of 1,500, yet processes hundreds of asylum-seekers daily. Once registered at the center, refugees are typically offered food, water, and shelter. With the sudden escalation in immigration, however, Kisoro District Red Cross branch manager, Natukunda Primrose, expresses fears over the center’s ability to accommodate all arrivals.

Many humanitarian officials in Uganda share Primrose’s concerns, as the United Nations Refugee Agency reports that it has received just 45% of the required funding for displacement efforts in Uganda. In addition, Uganda’s 2020-2021 Refugee Response Plan had only reached 22% of its funding goal by June 2021, revealing a deficit of USD $596 million in the government’s financial capacity. Considering Uganda’s position as the top refugee-hosting country in Africa, the absence of essential resources is alarming.

In addition to financial restraints, conditions continue to grow fraught as children increasingly comprise the majority of DRC refugee populations – of the 11,000 recent arrivals reported by Save The Children to the Ugandan border, 6,500 of whom were minors. Necessary resources to mediate child protection services further convolute rehabilitation measures.

Both Congolese and Ugandan governments are met with criticisms of their historical authoritarianism. Former DRC president, Joseph Kabila, enforced his power for 18 years, only yielding to threats of violence in January 2019. Current president, Félix Tshisekedi, subsequently succeeded Kabila, in what was the DRC’s first peaceful transition of power in 60 years. However, doubts of Tshisekedi’s administration are already developing, as the re-emergence of M23 attacks cast concerns for the government’s ability to contain the on-going violence.

Further obscuring the refugee crisis is Uganda’s recent 2021 presidential election where national outrage was ignited as President Yoweri Museveni’s secured his sixth term in office. As suggested by the lack of funding, Museveni’s mass human rights violations, and subsequent widespread public distrust, have undermined the Ugandan government’s capacity for refugee response.


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