Hundreds of Congolese refugees in Uganda move to inland settlement

The UN refugee agency has been urging Congolese refugees in overcrowded Ugandan villages along Lake Albert to relocate to Kyaka II settlement, where they will receive assistance like food, shelter, health care, schools and farmland. Hundreds have moved or are due to move there in recent weeks.

Congolese refugees arriving at Uganda's Kyaka II camp from Ntoroko town on the south end of Lake Albert.   © UNHCR/K.McKinsey

KYAKA II SETTLEMENT, Uganda (UNHCR) - Stephen Ngule is the pathfinder for his family of Congolese refugees. Braving wild tales of poisonous snakes, man-eating lions and blood-sucking insects, he recently made the journey to UNHCR's Kyaka II settlement, where the UN refugee agency is trying to relocate Congolese refugees now camping out in overcrowded Ugandan border villages along Lake Albert.

Interviewed moments after he stepped off the UNHCR truck, Ngule, 39, said his first impressions were favourable. "The environment is quite good for farming," he said, surveying the fertile soil and virgin jungle in the amber light of a setting sun. "And if they continue to treat us as well as we have been received, it will be fine here."

Ngule said he planned to go back to Ntoroko - a small town at the south end of Lake Albert, where refugees who fled fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have found temporary shelter - to bring his wife, three children and other relatives to Kyaka II.

"This is where we can help them," said Alice Litunya, the UNHCR official who organised the recent transport of refugees from Ntoroko to Kyaka II. "This is where there is food, shelter, a place to grow crops, schools, health care. We want them to come here. Of course if things change in DRC, we will help them go home."

Up to 10,000 Congolese refugees have been sheltering in Ugandan villages all along the shores of Lake Albert since they fled fighting in eastern Congo in May, when Ugandan defence forces withdrew.

The Ugandan government policy is that refugees can only be assisted in settlements, so UNHCR is trying to persuade them to move so they will have access to all necessary services. Unlike refugee camps in many other countries, Uganda gives land to refugees to farm in special settlements, and allows them to move freely in the country.

Ugandan authorities in the Bundibugyo region (in the south-west of the country) are losing patience with the refugees, Litunya reported. Alarmed at the overcrowding of their small town, the outbreak of cholera, and over-fishing of the lake, they have sent a strong message to the refugees to move further inland or go back home.

At the end of July, 138 people heeded the message and boarded UNHCR trucks for Kyaka II settlement, where they were given food and medical treatment, and allocated plots of land for farming. Another 154 people moved to Kyaka II from Karugutu, a small town inland from Lake Albert. A further 150 families have signed up to move later this week.

In Karugutu, a pastor who works as a volunteer helping the refugees, told UNHCR officials the refugees were reluctant to move because they had fallen prey to rumour-mongering about Kyaka II. "They have been told it's a prison, full of wild animals and poisonous snakes. They thought it was an area of isolation and punishment," said Pastor Charles Bamuloho.

One elderly refugee man in Ntoroko told a UNHCR official "there are insects there that suck all your blood out and you die immediately." For the record, Kyaka II has no prison wardens, no man-eating lions, and no poisonous snakes - and certainly no instantly-killing insects.

Pastor Bamuloho said avaricious vendors in Karugutu were spreading the rumours to keep their newfound customers from moving on. He also said pastoralists from the DRC were fuelling the rumours to keep Congolese farmers as a source of cheap labour to look after their cattle.

Litunya said the key to encouraging the refugees to move is people like Ngule who investigate Kyaka II, find out the truth, and can persuade other refugees to move to settlements.

Jacline Zamuda, a 69-year-old Congolese widow who has lived in Kyaka II for one year, is ready to give her testimony. She turned up to meet the trucks bringing refugees from Ntoroko at the end of July to tell them: "This place is good. You can cultivate the land, you can sell your surplus produce without any disturbance. And when you get sick, an ambulance is ready to bring you for treatment."

The refugees' choices now are fairly simple. As one refugee elder put it: "We would prefer peace so that we can go home. But in the meantime, we are encouraging people to move to Kyaka II."

By Kitty McKinsey in Ntoroko, Karugutu and Kyaka II, Uganda