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D.R. Congo: flight to Burundi following rebel fighting

Briefing notes

D.R. Congo: flight to Burundi following rebel fighting

15 October 2002

Several thousand Congolese refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have fled into north-western Burundi since the weekend, when heavy fighting broke out in south Kivu between two rebel groups - the Mai-Mai militia and the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD-Goma).

According to Burundi authorities in the town of Rugombo, in Cibitoke Province, more than 5,000 refugees arrived yesterday (Monday) through at least four border crossings. A joint UN/NGO team, including UNHCR, this morning travelled to Cibitoke Province to get more information about yesterday's influx.

Over the weekend, nearly 2,000 refugees arrived in Burundi after the south Kivu town of Uvira, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, fell to the Mai-Mai militia.

We are increasingly concerned that there may be further displacement if the Mai-Mai offensive in the Kivu region continues. The Mai-Mai militia indicate they intend to press on northwards toward the DRC town of Bukavu, on the shores of Lake Kivu. At the same time, RCD-Goma rebels say they will launch a counter-offensive to re-capture Uvira.

UNHCR is extremely worried that possible fighting for Bukavu or a counter-offensive for Uvira could lead to further population displacement into Burundi - which is itself fragile from years of conflict - or into south-western Rwanda.

Many of the refugees who fled over the weekend from Uvira are Congolese of ethnic Tutsi origin - also known as Banyamulenge. They arrived in Burundi through the border crossing at Gatumba in Bujumbura Rural and were transferred to a former refugee site less than 10 km from the border with the DRC. The site at Gatumba is some 15 km from the Burundi capital, Bujumbura.

UNHCR distributed basic supplies to the displaced families who started streaming across the border into Burundi on Saturday morning as heavy bombardments rocked their villages in the hills surrounding Uvira. Many said they fled out of fear. The majority of the refugees arrived with plenty of belongings, including food and cooking utensils, in private cars or hired vehicles. Among the new arrivals were also family members of officials of RCD-Goma, who until recently had controlled Uvira.

Refugees who arrived early on Saturday were allowed to proceed to Bujumbura, where they joined family or friends. But, as numbers grew during the day, Burundi authorities designated the site at Gatumba for the settlement of over 300 refugee families. By yesterday (Monday), we had begun to erect large hangars to shelter the displaced.

The flow of refugees through Gatumba had stopped by Monday, although it was not clear whether people had been prevented from crossing into Burundi or whether they were heeding the call by the new authorities to stay put in Uvira and surrounding areas. Mai Mai rebels were also said to be urging refugees who had crossed into Burundi to return home as Uvira 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 Burundi soldiers had been deployed to the border to secure the area.

Refugees who spoke to a joint UN/NGO team at the border on Saturday said they would like to return home as soon as possible. Many were, however, worried about their homes and property, which they feared had been looted.