Congolese refugees torn between returning home or remaining in exile
While sporadic fighting continues in parts of eastern DR Congo, thousands who fled to Uganda have chosen to return. Others, uncertain about the future, have opted to stay.
A group of Congolese refugees return home to the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the Nyakabande transit centre in Kisoro, Uganda.
© UNHCR/Esther Ruth Mbabazi
Mongera Bahiira, 60, sits in a small patch of shade at the Nyakabande transit centre in Kisoro, Uganda, surrounded by his wife and six of his 13 children. The rest are young adults who remained in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with their own families.
“I am worried about them. I don’t know if I will see them again,” said Mongera.
He and his family were forced to flee with whatever belongings they could carry after their village in Masisi, in North Kivu province’s Rutshuru Territory was attacked by armed militia in early October. They hitched a ride on a truck that took them to Bunagana town, near the border with Uganda, where they stayed with relatives for about a month.
But when fighting between the armed groups and Congolese armed forces broke out in the villages surrounding the town on 8 November, the Ugandan government opened the border – which has been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions – and allowed those fleeing the violence to enter.
“It’s the first time I am seeking refuge in Uganda and I hope we will be helped,” said Mongera.
“If the situation escalates, we shall come back to Uganda.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Ugandan authorities and partners provided assistance to 11,000 Congolese who crossed into the country, relocating over 1,000 of them – including Mongera’s family – to Nyakabande transit centre.
A few days later, some 10,000 people crossed back into the DRC after Ugandan and Congolese security officials informed them that it was safe to return.
Among them was Enoch Twaza, 50, who decided to return to his home in Bunagana, despite his wife Jennifer’s initial reluctance.
“We left a lot of property behind, and we have been assured it is safe to return. If the situation escalates, we shall come back to Uganda,” the father of eight explained before his departure.
Jennifer was not convinced that it was safe for them to go home and was in favour of waiting a couple more weeks, but finally agreed and helped lead the family’s livestock back across the border.
Joel Boutroue, UNHCR’s Representative in Uganda said the sudden movement of Congolese asylum seekers into Uganda is an indicator of “how volatile and unpredictable the situation is in eastern DR Congo.”
The unstable situation has left Alivera Nyamakabambelle torn between staying and returning home. The 84-year-old fled with her family of seven at night, leaving the sound of bombs and gunshots behind.
“If I had my way, I would go back, but my family wants to stay and as I have no one back home to take care of me, I have to stay too,” she said dolefully.
Her granddaughter, Tusenge Wema, nodded firmly.
“If I had my way, I would go back, but my family wants to stay.”
“Going back home any time soon is not an option. We shall stay in Uganda and start a life here,” said the 23-year-old, who is among the 1,000 or so of the recent arrivals from the DRC who have decided to remain for now.
Many of those who returned told UNHCR staff in DRC that their property was looted while they were gone, including food supplies and livestock, leaving them in a precarious situation and in need of humanitarian assistance.
UNHCR’s Boutroue said more resources are also needed to support Uganda, which is the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa with over 1.5 million refugees.
“We need more support to expand our emergency preparedness and capacity to receive new arrivals, as the likelihood of renewed violence and forced displacement is very high,” he said, noting that the capacity of Nyakabande transit centre will be increased to accommodate up to 10,000 people.
He added that those who choose to stay will be assisted until they are ready to return home.