Refugees return to Equateur province as UNHCR promotes reconciliation

News Stories, 19 October 2011

© UNHCR/C.Schmitt
The colourful opening ceremony for Radio Racodo in Dongo, Equateur province.

DONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, October 19 (UNHCR) It's been almost two years now, but Elisabeth* can still hear the screams of her mother as she was raped by armed men in an orgy of violence sparked by a row over fish ponds in northern Congo's Equateur province.

"They arrived very early in the morning. It was a Thursday. We did not even know it was war," said Elisabeth, recalling the attack on the small town of Dongo on October 29, 2009. "I was at the hospital. I hid behind the tall grass and saw three men disembowel a pregnant woman."

It got worse. Filled with horror, she ran home. "Armed men were raping my mother in our house. After raping her they killed her. I was hiding in a hole, but I heard as she cried," said Elisabeth, still traumatized. She fled across the nearby Oubangui River and sought shelter in Republic of the Congo.

She was one of more than 130,000 civilians to flee to neighbouring countries, mostly the Republic of Congo. A further 100,000 sought shelter in other parts of Equateur province, most of whom have since returned to their villages.

Despite her apprehension, Elisabeth also chose to repatriate earlier this year to Dongo with her four children. Only about 2,000 other Congolese refugees have recrossed the Oubangui to return home, but many come over to check their lands on a regular basis. UNHCR has been helping these returnees and promoting reconciliation between the Enyele and Munzaya communities.

"Life on the other side was difficult. We had a house to rent, but no money, no job and nothing to do. I came back to Dongo as soon as I heard that security had returned," explained Elisabeth, who now works as a social worker for UNHCR's local implementing partner, AIDES, helping other returnees rebuild their lives.

News of their progress is reaching the refugees in Republic of Congo and people are returning on their own in a small, but steady, daily stream. Homes need to be rebuilt in Dongo UNHCR funded construction of a new shelter for Elisabeth but a market is up and running and people are finding ways to support themselves.

Elisabeth is upbeat about the situation. "I say to my brothers living in the Republic of Congo that they can return. There is no war, everyone can return to the fields and children can attend school. We can even walk down the street late at night," Elisabeth said with a smile.

"I visit people who have chosen to return home, I see what their needs are, I meet with the sick and I follow them. I'm here to help them restart their lives here. Here, everybody knows me," she added, explaining her work.

UNHCR helps the spontaneous returnees by providing them with basic necessities such as plastic sheeting, sleeping mats, blankets, cooking utensils and mosquito nets. Its shelter programme helps the most vulnerable people rebuild their homes.

In partnership with other agencies, UNHCR also runs a programme to facilitate reconciliation between the rival communities, which led to the signature of a non-aggression pact in March.

As part of the reconciliation programme, a UNHCR-funded community radio station went on air earlier this month. Radio Racodo is based in Dongo and can also be listened to by refugees across the Oubangui. It was set up to facilitate information sharing and dialogue between the rival communities.

Elisabeth enjoys listening to the radio. "If there are problems in the cities or neighbourhoods, we hear about it on the radio," she said. "I think it's a good way to consolidate reconciliation," she said, adding that she particularly enjoyed the programmes on conflict resolution, women's rights, health, hygiene and disease prevention.

But while Elisabeth has begun rebuilding her life, the scars remain. "I cannot forget the screams of my mother. I hear them in my dreams," she told UNHCR, while adding: "I cannot forget, but I can forgive."

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Celine Schmitt in Dongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo




DR Congo Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Intense fighting has forced more than 64,000 Congolese to flee the country in recent months.

Donate to this crisis

Returnees in Myanmar

During the early 1990s, more than 250,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border into Bangladesh, citing human rights abuses by Myanmar's military government. In exile, refugees received shelter and assistance in 20 camps in the Cox's Bazaar region of Bangladesh. More than 230,000 of the Rohingya Muslims have returned since 1992, but about 22,000 still live in camps in Bangladesh. To promote stability in returnee communities in Myanmar and to help this group of re-integrate into their country, UNHCR and its partner agencies provide monitors to insure the protection and safety of the returnees as well as vocational training, income generation schemes, adult literacy programs and primary education.

Returnees in Myanmar

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

As a massive food distribution gets underway in six UNHCR-run camps for tens of thousands of internally displaced Congolese in North Kivu, the UN refugee agency continues to hand out desperately needed shelter and household items.

A four-truck UNHCR convoy carrying 33 tonnes of various aid items, including plastic sheeting, blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans crossed Wednesday from Rwanda into Goma, the capital of the conflict-hit province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The aid, from regional emergency stockpiles in Tanzania, was scheduled for immediate distribution. The supplies arrived in Goma as the World Food Programme (WFP), with assistance from UNHCR, began distributing food to some 135,000 displaced people in the six camps run by the refugee agency near Goma.

More than 250,000 people have been displaced since the fighting resumed in August in North Kivu. Estimates are that there are now more than 1.3 million displaced people in this province alone.

Posted on 6 November 2008

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

Since 2006, renewed conflict and general insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes – the country's worst displacement crisis since the formal end of the civil war in 2003. In total, there are now some 800,000 people displaced in the province, including those uprooted by previous conflicts.

Hope for the future was raised in January 2008 when the DRC government and rival armed factions signed a peace accord. But the situation remains tense in North Kivu and tens of thousands of people still need help. UNHCR has opened sites for internally displaced people (IDPs) and distributed assistance such as blankets, plastic sheets, soap, jerry cans, firewood and other items to the four camps in the region. Relief items have also been delivered to some of the makeshift sites that have sprung up.

UNHCR staff have been engaged in protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs and other populations at risk across North Kivu.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Posted on 28 May 2008

UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate
Play video

Our Sister, Our Mother - 2013 UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award Laureate

The 2013 winner of UNHCR`s Nansen Refugee Award is Sister Angelique Namaika, who works in the remote north east region of Democratic Republic of the Congo with survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). She has helped over 2000 displaced women and girls who have suffered the most awful kidnapping and abuse, to pick up the pieces of their lives and become re-accepted by their communities.
Uganda: New Camp, New ArrivalsPlay video

Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
DR Congo: Tears of RapePlay video

DR Congo: Tears of Rape

Eastern DRC remains one of the most dangerous places in Africa, particularly for women.