Thousands flee Congo for Burundi amid latest rebel fighting
BUJUMBURA, Burundi, May 12 (UNHCR) - Nearly 5,000 people from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have taken refuge in neighbouring Burundi after fleeing a weekend offensive by one of the largest Congolese rebel groups, RCD-Goma (Congolese Rally for Democracy).
Over the weekend, more than 4,860 Congolese refugees from south Kivu swam across the Ruzizi river - pushing their belongings on rafts and herding their cattle through the water - to the village of Nyamintanga in the border commune of Buganda, about 35 km north of the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. They have taken shelter in a primary school, a Catholic church and with local families in surrounding villages, said UNHCR officials at the site.
"This influx was not really a surprise," said the UN refugee agency's Representative in Burundi, Stefano Severe. "We are always prepared for more refugees from the DRC. Things have remained quite volatile in eastern DRC, and there had been rumours recently that there would be more of the usual abuse of the civilian population by different groups."
The refugees told UNHCR officials that RCD-Goma had warned the inhabitants of three villages (Kiryama, Cimuka, Ntunda) in south Kivu to leave their homes because it planned a large-scale operation against other rebel groups, which it referred to as "negative forces." The refugees said more than 400 of their houses had been burned to the ground, though it is not clear which group set fire to them. They also reported that 21 people were killed in the three Congolese villages; again it is unclear who was responsible.
The weekend fighting in south Kivu does not appear to be linked to more widely-publicised fighting in recent days in the north-eastern Ituri region of the DRC, which has sent large numbers of refugees into Uganda.
On their way to Burundi last weekend, the refugees' flight across the crocodile-infested Ruzizi river was fraught with danger. Eleven children drowned in the crossing while a man was badly bitten by a hippopotamus and had to be treated in a Bujumbura hospital.
UNHCR officials in Burundi have mobilised to quickly move the new arrivals to a camp at Cishemeye, further inland, because Nyamitanga is too close to the border and impossible to secure against rebel incursions. On Monday, 100 families (a total of 354 people) were moved, and the UN refugee agency plans to move all the remaining refugees on Tuesday.
However, some may not want to move because they are with friends and relatives on the Burundi side. "In addition, it is harvest time and they would like to be near the border so they can go home and save as much as they can," said UNHCR's Severe. "But it will be difficult for us to set up a new camp in Nyamitanga, and the area where they have come is not very safe."
The plan is to move at least the women and children further inland, even if the men in the families want to go back to the DRC to check on their property.
Severe praised the Burundian government for its "open-door policy, despite the fact that the area where the Congolese refugees have fled to is affected by Burundi's own security problems." Burundi has continued to accept refugees despite a civil war that has run for nearly 10 years.
Over the weekend, UNHCR distributed high-protein biscuits supplied by the UN children's agency, UNICEF, to the new arrivals as emergency rations. Another UN agency, the World Food Programme, is making an assessment of the new refugees' food needs. As there is no drinking water available in Nyamitanga (the local population draws its water from the river), UNHCR's partner ARP (Austrian Relief Project) distributed 400 jerry cans and then delivered drinking water. A team of UN agencies and non-governmental organisations - including UNHCR - visited the refugees on Monday to assess their further needs.
This is only the latest in a series of influxes of Congolese refugees driven out by continued fighting in eastern DRC. In October and November last year, more than 10,000 Congolese refugees fled a flare-up in fighting between two rebel groups in the DRC's south Kivu region. When fighting subsided, some of the refugees returned to the DRC, while others remain in camps in Burundi.
Less than two months ago, UNHCR closed two reception camps on Burundi's volatile border with the DRC after moving all the Congolese refugees who had been living there to a safer camp further inland.