Hundreds of Congolese refugees seek safety in South Sudan
KHARTOUM, Sudan, October 1 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has confirmed reports of an influx of hundreds of Congolese refugees into Yambio County close to Sudan's border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). UNHCR field staff are concerned that the humanitarian situation could get worse.
"Local authorities and aid agencies operating in the area reported that in recent days approximately 1,200 refugees fled to the villages of Gangura and Sakure following attacks by armed groups believed to be LRA [Lord's Resistance Army from Uganda] fighters around Dungu. A four-day journey on foot brought the refugees to safety behind SPLA [Sudan People's Liberation Army] lines inside South Sudan," UNHCR said in a press statement released in Khartoum.
On Saturday, a UNHCR emergency assessment team visited Gangura, a village about 15 kilometres south of Yambio town and 10 kms north of the DRC border, where 700 Congolese had settled. Médecins Sans Frontières (Spain) runs a clinic in the village and is treating a number of refugees wounded in the attacks in the DRC villages of Dura, Baote, Peturua, Naipayan, Kiro and Bikwoto.
Refugees gave accounts of abducted children and homes set ablaze in acts of savagery. Asked why they fled to Sudan, they said that the LRA had blocked all other routes out of the region. Unconfirmed reports indicate that bodies were seen floating in rivers along the way. The area is in full rainy season and rivers and swamps are flooding.
"From what we have learned in speaking to the refugees, the attacks were ferocious and unremitting. Many refugees being treated in the MSF clinic showed wounds from machetes and bullets," Geoff Wordley, assistant representative for UNHCR operations in South Sudan, said.
"The reports from DRC and the accounts of refugees in Western Equatoria [province] demonstrate the frightening possibility of a rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation in the area," Wordley added.
The refugees have settled in a derelict school where the majority sleep in the open without bedding, cooking utensils or household items. They subsist on forest fruit and on what little the local communities can provide.
UNHCR is sending an emergency team to the area to support the relief effort and to monitor the situation. UNHCR closed its office in Yambio in August 2007 after completing large-scale repatriation from DRC and Central African Republic.
Immediate concerns identified by aid agencies include the proximity of the refugee settlements to the border, the likelihood of LRA attacks and abductions of civilians, poor living conditions and the diminishing stocks of food held by the local population.
"UNHCR is working with partner agencies, particularly WFP [World Food Programme] and UNICEF [UN Children's Fund] to rush emergency assistance to the beleaguered population. MSF is monitoring the nutritional status of the refugees and will provide supplementary feeding for children in need," the UNHCR statement said.
LRA fighters, whose leaders have been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, are believed to have moved from their original bases in Uganda to north-eastern Congo and South Sudan. Peace talks with the Ugandan government to end their long struggle appear deadlocked.