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Congolese refugees can “never go back”

In the Kivu provinces of eastern DRC, 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict. // Trina Moyles
In the Kivu provinces of eastern DRC, 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by conflict. // Trina Moyles

For more than four years, *Hanna, a 33-year-old eastern Congolese woman, and her family have been living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, a UNHCR-operated camp located in southern Uganda.

She and her husband live in a semi-permanent house, grow maize and beans on small, scattered plots surrounding Nakivale, and are raising three daughters who are enrolled in a primary school in the settlement. Hanna says life has stabilized in the refugee settlement, but it is impossible to forget the events that brought her to Nakivale.

In May 2010, Hanna and her daughters were forced to flee after rebel groups attacked their home in Jomba, North Kivu of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We were working the fields and when we came home, the rebels bound [my husband] and wanted to kill him. They accused him that he was the cause of the war because he’s from the Tutsi tribe,” Hanna recalls.

Hanna’s husband was kidnapped by one of the armed groups fighting for control of resources in the eastern Kivu provinces of the DRC, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, and forced to work as a “mule,” carrying ammunition and cargo. The FDLR is made up of former Hutu-Rwandese genocidaires and Interahamwe youth who were responsible for the 100-day slaughter of 900 000 Tutsi-Rwandan civilians in 1994.

On that unforgettable day in Jomba, the FDLR rebels locked Hanna’s parents, along with her eight- and nine-year-old sons, inside her family’s house and set the building on fire. Desperately, Hanna watched the building burn and heard her children’s screams from inside. The rebels ransacked their food storage and stole their cows and goats.

Today, the UNHCR reports that 430  000 Congolese refugees are living in neighbouring countries, including Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the United Republic of Tanzania.

There are currently 64 000 refugees living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, with Congolese refugees constituting for more than half of the total population. The majority, like Hanna and her family, fled from eastern DRC to Nakivale in the past 10 years alone. Refugees in Nakivale depend on small rations of maize, beans and cooking oil from the UNHCR and are given one parcel of land per household for growing staple food crops.
Some international observers and scholars have labelled the 20-year-long conflict in eastern DRC as, “Africa’s World War.” Nine countries in Central and East Africa, including Rwanda, Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe, among others, have directly financed approximately 20 armed militia groups in the region over the past two decades.

Militia groups have fought (and continue to fight) for political and economic control over heavily contested questions of land, resources, ethnicity and citizenship.

According to political observer Jason Stearns, the conflict in Congo contains wars within wars. In his book, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (2010) he wrote, “There was not one Congo war, or even two, but at least forty or fifty different, interlocking wars.”

As a result, the casualty rate from ongoing war and instability in eastern DRC has reached more than five million people, with the majority of deaths indirectly caused by disease, malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare.

“The conflict in the Congo has been going on for so long, yet it often goes under the radar because it’s such a complex conflict,” says Nikki Whaites, Director of International Projects of War Child Canada, a Toronto-based non-profit organization.

For the past eight years, War Child Canada has been working with local community-based organizations in South Kivu of eastern Congo to rebuild schools, address sexual and gender-based violence and provide access to education for 11 000 children and youth who have been displaced by fighting and instability.

“There are 7.5 million children out of school and two million children who’ve died as a result of the conflict,” Whaites says. “The numbers are just staggering.”

The most recent statistics indicate that nearly 700 000 people from South Kivu and over 890 000 from North Kivu have been internally displaced by the conflict and are living in IDP camps under harsh conditions and the risk of being attacked by rebel groups.

The UN reports that rebel and militia groups in the eastern DRC continue to fund their operations by the control, exploitation and smuggling of natural resources and minerals, including gold, timber, charcoal, cannabis and cash crops.

“The level of natural resources in [eastern DRC] is very high. Eighty percent of the world’s coltan supply is coming out of the Congo and that’s what’s in our smartphones and tablets,” Whaites explains. “Though there are many other factors involved, [mining] definitely plays a strong role in fuelling the conflict.”

Whaites says she cannot comment on the relationship between the conflict and the operations of Canadian mining companies in eastern DRC.
There are currently a handful of Canadian mining companies who are actively operating in eastern DRC, including Banro, a gold-mining company in South Kivu, along with Loncor Resources Ltd, a gold exploration company with projects in North Kivu.

The Canadian government released a report in November 2014 stating they made a contribution of $21  million in humanitarian aid to projects in eastern DRC. The same report stated that Canada imported a total of $3.8 million worth of merchandise, including precious stones and metals, timber and wood from DRC.

After meeting with local community groups in South Kivu in late 2013, KAIROS, a Canadian non-profit, began lobbying the Canadian government to create an independent extractive sector ombudsman for investigating and making recommendations on the conduct of Canadian companies in eastern DRC.

For Hanna and other Congolese refugees living in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, the future hangs in uncertainty. They submit applications to relocate to other countries, including Norway, the US and Canada—and they wait.

Since the day she fled her home and became a refugee, Hanna doesn’t know what has happened to her land and property in Jomba, North Kivu, but she is confident that she will never go back to Congo.

“[The rebels] did many things there. They tortured many people. We saw too much in Congo. For us, Congo remains a very dangerous place. We can never go back.”

*Name has been changed to protect her identity

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