Congolese Refugees: risking dangerous river travel for food
Cut off from aid by armed clashes and marauding soldiers, refugees who have crossed to the Republic of Congo (ROC) from the northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are risking dangerous travel downriver in increasing numbers in search of food and medicine. Other Congolese trying to flee the battle zone have reportedly been robbed and detained by DRC soldiers.
During the past week, an average 45 Congolese refugees a day have abandoned riverfront sites in the ROC by canoe for another camp to which UNHCR and other aid workers still have access. Families quitting Liranga, Njoundou and Mongombele, temporary camps near the junction of the Ubangui and Congo rivers, say insecurity and the lack of basic assistance are forcing more people to venture out on the waterway. Most head for Loukolela, one of a string of sites along an 800-km stretch of river border where an estimated 100,000 Congolese have fled in recent months.
This week, a ship carrying 80 Congolese attempting to make their way downriver to Brazzaville was stopped at both rebel and government checkpoints on the Ubangui River. The crew later told UNHCR in Loukolela that the boat came under fire after leaving a rebel position, 20 km north of Impfondo. DRC soldiers then boarded the vessel and held it for three days during which the boat and passengers were robbed of all their possessions. The ship was eventually allowed to proceed, but soldiers forced the 80 civilians to remain behind in a village called Lindika.
In the past month, local ROC authorities have grown more fearful that some areas are infiltrated by fighters from either side of the confict.
Loukolela is below the zone of recent clashes between pro- and anti-government forces in the DRC. Facilities there can accommodate 1,500 people. UNHCR completed a distribution of food and relief items there this week.
Refugees say that more of the populations of Liranga and Njoundou, totalling some 25,000 people, would also flee downriver but lack canoes.
Loukolela, along with Impfondo and Betou, towns several hundred kilometres north, are the only points in northern ROC that UNHCR can reach at present, and only by air.