Grace, a refugee from the DRC who sought safety in Uganda, with her two-year-old child. (Photo Credit: CARE / Thomas Markert)
Written By: Ruwani Dharmakirthi
At first glance you might not know that a crisis is unfolding just across the lake, where DRC is within seeing distance. The landing site is no longer full with thousands of people, no longer a makeshift settlement where women build up temporary tents out of the traditional kitenge fabric to protect themselves from the sun. The horrifying water and sanitation conditions are no longer blatantly present, where you could once see feces floating in the same water women were washing their clothes and children filling up bottles of water. The fish market which was turned into a landing site has a few people scattered around, resting under the shade or standing with the few belongings they managed to bring, others are lined up awaiting medical attention – the calm atmosphere a stark difference from what I saw just a few weeks ago on my first visit.
I visited Sebagoro for the first time in early February during the height of the DRC refugee influx across Lake Albert. At that time the average weekly influx was easily reaching several thousands, and boats were arriving almost every hour. I was able to speak with many refugees who told me the horrors they faced not only on the other side of the lake but also what they had to endure in transit – with several boats capsizing or children falling overboard and drowning due to overcrowding and rough waters. Although the influx has significantly reduced, about 30 people arrived the day of my recent visit, the stories are eerily similar to the ones I heard before, with the conflict not looking as if it will end anytime soon and the hope for peace in DRC wavering.
One of the refugee women I spoke to this time was Gloria*. She is 18 years old and fled from her village in Ituri province along with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. In DRC she was a small scale farmer and her husband a fisherman and an avid footballer who played for their village team and competed in inter-village matches. She tells me her story while sitting in front of a boat similar to the one she arrived in, one she says was very crowded with people and their belongings, and costs 20,000 Uganda shillings per person for the journey. She tells me that the conflict hadn’t reached her village yet but was nearing every day – with a nearby village falling victim to the inter-ethnic violence that is spreading across the Ituri Province. She looks down at the ground and says that there have been a lot of mass killings, with perpetrators using machetes to cut people to pieces, houses being burned to the ground and the stealing of livestock and land. Her husband and her made the difficult decision to leave before their village also falls, she only managed to bring a few of her clothes and had to leave most of their belongings behind. When I asked her if she plans on ever going back she looks just past me and states, “DRC will never have peace – if there’s no war today, there’s war tomorrow.” An echo of what I have heard from the countless Congolese refugees I have spoken to. Although the hope for peace in DRC is small, the hope for peace now is what has kept the will to rebuild a new life alive. Gloria tells me that she has heard that in Kyangwali she will get the opportunity to restart her life in peace where there are services available to support her, but most importantly all she really wants now is peace.
CARE Uganda conducted a Rapid Gender Analysis and a GBV Assessment to inform its response in both GBV, and Sexual and Reproductive Health in Kyangwali refugee settlement. CARE has established a Women and Girls’ Center at Kagoma Reception Center and in Maratatu village in Kyangwali, and is currently setting up additional centers inside the settlement with funding from the Danish Emergency Relief Fund (DERF). The centers are safe spaces where GBV survivors, and women and girls who feel at risk receive support including immediate counseling and psychosocial support, as well as assistance in accessing critical services including health and shelter. With support from UNFPA, CARE is also doing identification and referrals of pregnant and lactating women (PLW) and distributing dignity kits to women and girls containing soap, sanitary pads and other items to help them manage their periods.
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