As vast swathes of eastern DRC descend further into chaos with little government or security presence, people continue to flee to escape killing, rape, looting and extortion committed by rebel militia. In Uganda, more than 1,000 people are arriving each week to the Rwamwanja refugee settlement, now home to more than 20,000 refugees, with a further 10,000 people waiting in the Nyakabanda transit camp on the DRC border.
At the Rwamwanja reception area, hundreds of people await registration and queue to receive their first ration of cornmeal, cow peas and cooking oil.
I meet Françoise*, 32, who had arrived the night before from Nyakabanda with her husband and five children. She tells me they left their village of Kiwanja in North Kivu ten days earlier because they could no longer endure living in constant fear of the gunfire. Without hesitation she unwraps her 2-year-old daughter from her back and lifts up her shirt to reveal two lumpy, darkened scars where a bullet entered the left side of her ribs a few months earlier.
The spray of bullets that Françoise ran through in April marked the beginning of the latest flare up in the long-running conflict in eastern DRC between rebel militia groups and government forces that has pushed people into new depths of suffering.
Françoise says rebels poured into her village firing their guns and looting:
“I began to run when I saw the rebels terrorizing people and looting shops, but as I ran across the street, a bullet went into my chest and I fell straight to the road. A stranger on a motorbike picked me up off the road and delivered me to hospital.”
She spent three months in hospital recovering from the surgery to remove the bullet. Then, after returning home to her family, Françoise and her husband decided to abandon their home and seek refuge in Uganda.
“I was living in constant fear of the gunfire. My heart just kept racing and I was so nervous all the time, we had to leave.
The challenge of a new life as a refugee
Françoise and a group of ten companions from Kiwanja sit in the grass sharing out scoops of cornmeal and cow peas and cups of cooking oil.
Among them is Colletta, 25. Her three young daughters refuse to leave her side. Colletta was at home with her husband and children just two weeks earlier when their house came under attack by M23 rebels. Her husband of seven years was killed instantly.
“My neighbours came running to rescue me and my daughters and we all fled and didn’t stop until we reached Bunagana, near the Ugandan border.”
Colletta and many thousands more like her face the challenge of a new life as a refugee in a new country, with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing when they escaped.
“All I think about is my husband, we were married for seven years, I just really miss him.”
As well as hundreds of thousands of people displaced inside DRC, over 54,000 refugees have fled to Uganda and Rwanda. In the Rwamwanja refugee settlement, Oxfam is setting up water and sanitation facilities, hygiene promotion and cash-for-work opportunities.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Photos: Oxfam's work in eastern DRC
Oxfam briefing: "For me, but without me, is against me": Why efforts to stabilize the Democratic Republic of Congo are not working (pdf 957kb, 4 July 2012)