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Africa Fact Sheet - The Great Lakes region

Africa Fact Sheet - The Great Lakes region

3 November 1999

Following the killing of two U.N. aid workers on 12 October in Burundi's Rutana province, non-essential operations outside the capital, Bujumbura, were immediately stopped. The UNICEF and WFP staff members were killed as the joint assessment mission they were on arrived at a displaced persons' site near the Tanzanian border.

The incident and resulting suspension came two months after the situation in Burundi took a marked downturn: at least 300,000 civilians have been 'regrouped' in makeshift camps while the army has attempted to put down a surge in rebel activity. Although UNHCR and other agencies have visited some of the regroupement sites near Bujumbura, some are much more remote, up to two-and-a-half hours on foot from the nearest road, and most are in the troubled southern provinces. As in 1997 when the government asked the U.N. to assist the sites, agencies have told the government that to do so would mean endorsing the involuntary displacement. UNHCR and others have given limited, life-sustaining aid to people on the sites.

One of the programmes suspended in Burundi was the repatriation from Tanzania. For the past 10 months and at the same time as other civilians were forced to flee into exile from the southern provinces, an average of 200 Burundi per week were voluntarily returning home from Tanzania. The number of returns had quietly topped 8,000 people, going chiefly to the provinces of Muyinga and Ruyigi, where UNHCR maintained offices.

UNHCR staff in Kasulu district, Tanzania, saw the number of Burundi refugees jump at the end of September. The new arrivals said that battles between the Burundi army and rebels had intensified over control of the civilian population, with rebels trying to thwart the army's regroupement policy. Almost 5,000 Burundi were transferred to Nduta camp in October.

With the freeze on repatriation and doubts about the future of multi-party peace talks due to facilitator Julius Nyerere's death, the outlook for the 275,000 Burundi refugees in Tanzania has become more uncertain. Staff are on the watch for another refugee influx and a political radicalization of the camps.

Along the shore of Lake Tanganyika, the boats that arrived each day for almost a year packed with families seeking relief from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) suddenly stopped coming in August. Between July and August the count of arrivals in Kigoma dropped from an average of 3,300 per week to just 100. At the end of October, the total number of Congolese refugees from the rebellion that began in August 1998 stood just shy of 97,000. Rare new arrivals say that the embattled South Kivu area from which the majority of the refugees have fled is now firmly under the control of anti-Kinshasa rebel forces.

In government-controlled portions of the DRC, the rebellion and encroaching violence has made the need for longer-term solutions for refugees of several nationalities more acute. During September, UNHCR staff and a partner NGO were able to reunite 52 Rwandan and Burundi unaccompanied minors with their families in Mbuji-Mayi. But the voluntary repatriation of other Burundi refugees there, including over 130 unaccompanied children for whom tracing efforts have been fruitless, had to be postponed because of violence in Burundi.

Near the Angolan border, UNHCR is working urgently on new sources of water for 43,000 Angolan refugees in Kisenge, where eight of 18 water holes have recently dried up. UNHCR has previously had to make local food purchases to supply the remote sites. And in the northern town of Mbandaka, staff from Kinshasa are currently evaluating a project where a small group of Rwandans and Burundi who have chosen not to repatriate are given agricultural tools, shelter material and food in place of continued assistance. The programme could be extended to other isolated locations.

The civil wars in neighbouring Republic of Congo and Angola have created an almost continuous cycle of population movements in the DRC's western Bas-Congo province. While only a few hundred Congolese crossed into Bas-Congo during October, humanitarian conditions in Congo's Pool region, south-west of Brazzaville, are dire and more arrivals are likely. Mortality among the newest refugees exceeds six per 10,000/day - half that level is considered catastrophic. Congolese refugees are also at risk because DRC authorities suspect that members of the Congolese Ninja militia (who support the former prime minister) are slipping in with refugees. UNHCR protection staff have intervened on numerous occasions to ensure proper treatment of Congolese nationals.

With the economic strains caused by the continuing civil war in the DRC and the concern that fighters from the civil wars to the north and south will lead to insecurity in the Bas-Congo, populations are also leaving the area. An operation begun in April after UNHCR was petitioned by refugees to help them repatriate by bypassing the dangerous Pool region has to date assisted more than 40,000 Congolese return to Brazzaville. In early October, UNHCR staff in the DRC operated two repatriation convoys carrying 700 returnees to the Angolan territory of Cabinda.

During September, a U.N. inter-agency mission was able for the first time to travel to the Republic of Congo's Pool region by road. As many as 300,000 Congolese were estimated to be displaced in the area, many in a life-threatening state of malnutrition.

In Brazzaville itself, UNHCR and government officials have selected host villages and completed preparations for the local integration of up to 7,000 Rwandan and Burundi refugees who reached Congo in mid-1997 after walking across the DRC. The final phase of a local settlement programme is scheduled to get underway in November after the process is explained to refugees and host communities. UNHCR aid will go to both individual refugees and the villages.

Villages along Gabon's border with the Republic of Congo have been bracing for a large influx of people fleeing the Congolese civil war since several thousand refugees first arrived in Gabon in June. UNHCR registered more than 10,000 Congolese who have come forward for aid in the border provinces of Haut Ogoue and Nyanga and in the capital, Libreville. Local officials say the number of Congolese who have crossed the forested border is probably much higher.

UNHCR and partners are digging wells and latrines and improving temporary shelters in several rural locations. Food has been purchased locally for refugees. In Libreville, UNHCR is ensuring that the 3,000 Congolese who have made their way to the city have proper identification cards and access to medical care.