Helped by his son, a grim-faced Jack Bandinga is arranging his belongings on the Ugandan shore of Lake Albert.
“We have seen our people’s bodies on the ground,” he says. “People have been cut with machetes. These are the things we have witnessed.”
Jack is lucky to have escaped violence in his home area of Toregesi in the north-eastern province of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). After hiding in the bush for two days, he, his wife and four children managed to cross the lake on a fishing boat to the Uganda side, a five-hour journey fraught with danger.
Last week, over 22,000 Congolese crossed Lake Albert to Uganda in three days, bringing the total number of people from the DRC arriving in the country to about 34,000 since the beginning of the year. The refugees use small canoes or overcrowded and rickety fishing boats, often carrying more than 250 people and taking up to 10 hours to cross. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has said it is saddened by reports of four Congolese refugees feared to have drowned after their boat capsized.
"I saw so many people die of hunger."
On Lake Albert’s shores, crowds of newly-arrived Congolese mill around, collecting their belongings or waiting to see if family members and relatives have arrived on the boats.
Anita Mave, 24, is among those waiting for her family. She is not sure if they are alive. When the fighting escalated, she was separated from her husband and her two children.
“My husband fled in one direction and I fled in another,” she says. “I’m not sure if he and my children were killed or if they are alive.”
Anita boarded a boat and crossed Lake Albert, hoping to reunite with them on the other side. She has not seen them or had any news of their whereabouts.
“There is no food back there, I saw so many people die of hunger,” she says. “We are just surviving like wild animals.”
Increased fighting between ethnic groups has created a wave of displacement across the lake into Uganda. In the past week, more than 1,300 people have crossed to the Ugandan village of Sebagoro, where UNHCR has set up an emergency centre to receive those arriving.
“The situation is quite dire,” says Andrew Harper from UNHCR’s Programme Support and Management Division. “There’s a lack of water, food, medical equipment and shelter.”
He says UNHCR’s main objectives are to register arrivals, relocate them to areas allocated by the Ugandan government and to build infrastructure such as shelters.
Tens of people are reported to have been killed in the fighting and thousands have been displaced in the region. There are disturbing reports of whole villages being burned to the ground. Most of those displaced have limited assistance and access to basic needs such as food, water and relief supplies.
UNHCR is on high alert on both sides of the border and said in a statement that greater efforts were needed to ensure security and humanitarian access.
UNHCR is working with the Uganda government to ease registration of those arriving, which is essential for their relocation to Kagoma reception centre in Hoima district in western Uganda.
More than 5 million people have been forcibly displaced by conflict in the DRC. About 4.49 million are internally displaced and more than 680,000 have fled to nearby countries such as Uganda and Burundi.
“The only aid we are asking for is peace in our country, Congo,” says Jack Bandinga. “We just came to Uganda for safety so the only aid we need is a peaceful Congo.”