Separated during flight, Congolese family is reunited in Uganda

Congolese refugees are unexpectedly reunited in a refugee settlement in Uganda after fleeing armed attacks back home

DR Congo family reunion for a happy ending

Mawazo Peninah, her husband and seven children are reunited at Matanda transit centre in Uganda.  © UNHCR/Eunice Ohanusi

Congolese refugee Mawazo Peninah did not expect to see her husband and three children again after they were separated in June this year, following armed attacks on their village in North Kivu province, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  

The family was unexpectedly reunited in Uganda, where they fled to, in different directions. On the day of the attack, Mawazo was in the farm with four of her seven children while her husband, Mpagazehe, stayed home with the rest.

“When the attackers came, I hid with three of my children in the bush near my home and later fled to neighbouring Uganda,” says Mpagazehe, 40. He was fraught with worry over the rest of his family’s safety.

“I thought I would never see my wife and children again,” he says.

When Mawazo heard the sounds of gunfire, machetes and children wailing, she rushed home, but was devastated to find an empty house.

“I thought I would never see my wife and children again.”

“Everyone was running in different directions,” she recalls.

Desperate to find the rest of her family, she joined hundreds of others who were fleeing towards Uganda. She managed to grab only one mattress, a few pieces of clothing, a cooking pot and a few other belongings.

Unbeknown to them, husband and wife both arrived at Matanda transit centre in Kanungu District in Uganda.

“My children and I were queuing to receive the wrist band identity tags when suddenly I saw a familiar face in the line opposite me,” recalls Mpagazehe. “I could not believe what my eyes were seeing!” 

Mawazo and the other children were standing in a queue right opposite him.

“I immediately broke out of the queue and hugged them for long time.”

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and the Uganda Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) set up the transit centre in mid-June to receive and transfer Congolese refugees like Mawazo and Mpagazehe, who are fleeing to Uganda from the western part of North Kivu province in the DRC. 

“I immediately broke out of the queue and hugged them for long time.”

“We receive more than 150 Congolese refugees on a daily basis,” says Jimmy Ogwang, UNHCR’s Field Associate working at the transit centre. “They stay here for three to five days.”

The newly arrived refugees are registered by OPM and then UNHCR provides them with items like blankets, sleeping mats, soap and sanitary kits. They also receive food and have access to health and nutrition services, water, communal latrines and child-friendly recreational facilities.

New arrivals in Matanda Transit Centre

A Congolese family stand with their new blankets, sleeping mats and other items issued by UNHCR at Matanda transit centre, Uganda.  © UNHCR/Eunice Ohanusi

After registration, refugees are then transferred to Kyaka II refugee settlement in south-western Uganda. Kyaka II is currently the main settlement for receiving Congolese refugees. Here, they have freedom of movement and can access education, enrol for vocational training and start businesses.

An estimated 40,000 Congolese refugees have fled to Uganda since the start of the refugee influx from the DRC in January this year. This brings the number of Congolese refugees in Uganda to over 288,000 with 85 per cent of this population being women and children.

“The presence of all these refugees has stretched the available resources to limits,” says UNHCR’s Ogwang adding that the establishment of a new transit centre will ease pressure on the existing one in Nyakabande. Currently, 700 refugees are being accommodated there and are waiting to be transferred to the settlement.  

“We are providing security for them; they are defenceless and voiceless.”

By June, over 5,500 new refugees had been received from the DRC, with an average of 185 new arrivals daily.  For Kyaka II settlement, this means continuous reception of hundreds of refugees every week, in need of life-saving support, shelter and basic services like water, health and education. 

“We are providing security for them; they are defenceless and voiceless,” says Timothy Kitaka, from OPM, who oversees the administration and management of Matanda transit centre. “The Government provides refugees a plot of land for shelter, cultivation and an opportunity to integrate with the community.” 

Mpagazahe, Mawazo and their seven children are among the first batch of 317 refugees who were transferred from Matanda to Kyaka II last month. For this family of nine, their joy is two-fold. They are not only reunited but they now have a roof over their heads and a chance to start afresh in safety.