UNHCR relocates Kenyan refugees in Uganda
MULANDA, Uganda, January 23 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Wednesday began relocating an estimated 6,500 Kenyan refugees away from border areas in south-east Uganda to a transit centre some 35 kilometres inland.
Six buses carrying an initial group of 360 refugees set off in driving rain from the border towns of Busia and Malaba and arrived an hour later at the Mulanda centre. Rain is regarded as an auspicious sign in many African cultures.
Another 360 refugees were expected in Mulanda by the end of Wednesday. During the five-day relocation operation, the rest of the newly arrived refugees will be moved from Malaba, Busia and Lwakhakha to the transit centre here.
The first group of Kenyans queued patiently on the verandah of the polytechnic-turned-transit camp in Mulanda to be registered. Many carried plastic bags containing the meagre possessions they were able to salvage before being chased from their homes in post-election violence across the border in Kenya.
By Wednesday, some 200 tents provided by UNHCR had been erected at the transit centre in readiness for the refugees. The refugee agency was preparing to put up another 300. The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), meanwhile, was installing four water tanks with a total storage capacity of up to 40,000 litres.
Registered refugees will receive ration cards which entitle them to food, basic household commodities and other services at the transit centre.
Many of the refugees on today's convoys have been living at schools in Malaba and Busia, with women and children quartered in classrooms and men sleeping in tents. Other groups of Kenyan refugees are living with relatives and friends.
"Some of these [latter] people may not move to Mulanda because they prefer to stay close to the border where they can closely follow developments taking place on the other side," said a UNHCR official who travelled with the refugees from Busia to Mulanda. She added that they were anxious to return home, put their children back in school and rebuild their lives.
In contrast, many of those moving to Mulanda on Wednesday were expecting to be there for some time. "I have nowhere else to go. We plan to stay here for some months as we decide what to do next," said Rahab Wanjiru, a dealer in electronic goods in Busia, which straddles the border.
Her shop was set ablaze by drunken youths as they hunted down people from Wanjiru's ethnic group after the results of the December 30 presidential poll were announced, sparking violence that has left hundreds dead. "We fled to the police station, where we spent the night. The next day we crossed into Uganda," Wanjiru recalled.
David Waweru, aged 23, said the post-election violence in Busia had come as a severe shock. "The people who came to burn our house were my friends. I used to hang around with them. How can they beat me because I am of a different tribe," he said, while waiting to register. "It will be hard to go back. I cannot stay with people who are ready to kill me."
The refugees moving to Mulanda are expected to remain there for several weeks. Their return will depend on developments in Kenya and if things do not improve, they will be offered the chance to move to long-established refugee settlements in western Uganda.
Uganda currently hosts more than 216,000 refugees, mostly from neighbouring Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The country is also coping with 850,000 internally displaced persons.
By Roberta Russo in Mulanda, Uganda