Thousands flee DR Congo for Burundi amid fears of further fighting
BUJUMBURA, Burundi, October 15 (UNHCR) - Some 7,000 Congolese refugees have arrived in Burundi in recent days, with more expected to follow if fighting escalates between rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The Congolese refugees fled their homes in south Kivu, DRC, when heavy fighting broke out between the Mai-Mai militia and the rebel group, Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma), over the weekend. The town of Uvira, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, fell out of RCD-Goma's control and into the hands of the Mai-Mai militia.
On Monday, more than 5,000 Congolese arrived in Rugombo town, Cibitoke province, north-western Burundi. This follows the nearly 2,000 who arrived on Saturday through the border crossing at Gatumba, further south. Local authorities have started registering the new arrivals at Rugombo, while some refugees at Gatumba have been transferred to a former refugee site nearby.
On Tuesday, a joint team of United Nations agencies (including UNHCR) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) travelled to Cibitoke province to gather more information about the recent influx. There are fears of further displacement if the rebels continue fighting - the Mai-Mai militia has said it will head northwards to capture the town of Bukavu, while RCD-Goma has signalled its plans to launch a counter-offensive to recapture Uvira.
The UN refugee agency has expressed concern that further fighting could result in a bigger influx into Burundi or south-western Rwanda, destabilising the situation in those areas.
When UNHCR distributed basic supplies to displaced families at the Gatumba site on Saturday, many of them said they had fled out of fear. The majority there are Congolese of ethnic Tutsi origin, also known as Banyamulenge. They arrived with plenty of belongings, including food and cooking utensils, in private or hired vehicles. Among the new arrivals were also family members of officials of the RCD-Goma rebel group.
Refugees who spoke to a joint UN/NGO team at the Gatumba border on Saturday said they would like to return home as soon as possible. However, many were worried about their homes and property, which they feared had been looted.
The flow of refugees through Gatumba stopped by Monday. It is not clear if people have been prevented from crossing into Burundi or whether they are heeding calls by the Mai-Mai militia to stay put in Uvira and surrounding areas. The new authorities in Uvira have also reportedly been urging refugees who had crossed into Burundi to return home as the town was in "safe hands".
UNHCR was not allowed to go to the border areas on Monday and could not verify some of the information received. There were reports that Burundian soldiers had been deployed to the border to secure the area.