The Great Lakes conflict is as old as Gladys Uwineza Mulisa. This long-drawn conflict has resulted in millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands now live in exile.
Gladys is turning 20 as a refugee in Rwamwanja settlement in western Uganda. She is originally from Kirumba village, in Rutshuru territory, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Gladys became a refugee this past January, adding to an already bursting statistic. It is estimated that more than 6.3 million people are displaced in Africa’s Great Lakes region – either as refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons.
Life as a refugee
Gladys is the eldest of four siblings, two are in school, and one is a toddler. Since arriving in Uganda, her main tasks are to cook for and take care of her brothers and sister, while their mother tends a small plot of land for food.
Gladys says that growing up in Kirumba village, 90 kilometres north of Goma, was always fraught with challenges. But life was not as harsh as being a refugee. “There was fighting now and then, but we managed to stay safe. My father reared cattle, so we always had milk, and whenever we needed money, my father would go to the market and sell a cow,” she says.
“Being a refugee is precarious,” continues Gladys. “Here, we are not assured of the next meal. We have never cultivated land before, so it is difficult for us. It is very hard for my mother.”
A Rwandan education
Over the years, most schools in North Kivu have been damaged, looted or turned into camps for the displaced. As a result, Gladys was sent to school in Rwanda’s Gisenyi Province. She completed her Secondary School education in 2013 and hopes to join a university college where she can study medicine.
“I don’t know how I will achieve my dream now that I am in a refugee camp; there are no colleges here… and I don’t even know how I’d raise the college fees,” she says in despair.
Nevertheless, Gladys does not wish to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I cannot go back there even if calm returns; I have seen too many bad things, too many dead people,” she says, with her eyes closed and her voice trailing into a whisper.
‘The death of my father’
When the M23 rebel group fell to the Congolese Armed Forces towards the end of 2013, families in Kirumba expected tranquillity. But the myriad of armed groups have continued to kill, loot and cause continuous uprooting of populations.
“The worst thing that I saw was the death of my father,” says Gladys with a blank stare on her face. “When the attack occurred, we all fled our home but our father stayed behind. The FDLR [Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a Rwandan rebel group operating in eastern Congo] killed him.”
Gladys fled Kirumba and was later re-united with her mother and siblings and together they made the journey to western Uganda.
“We left our father’s body inside the house, right where they killed him.”
Hope in humanity
Gladys aspires to one day become a medical doctor because she would like to ‘save people’ for a living. Despite losing her childhood to conflict and having her father brutally taken away, Gladys is hopeful. “Not all human beings are evil. The people who received us here are good people.”
In western Uganda and in the Great Lakes region, aid agencies strive to give children a much deserved childhood. ‘Child friendly’ play centres and ‘safe learning areas’ have been established in an attempt to restore normalcy in the lives of children affected by this conflict. Uprooted families – many, more than once – are accorded a dignified life and supported to become self-sufficient once more.
The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) together with the UN Agency for Refugees (UNHCR), national governments and partners, are working towards finding long lasting solutions to the problem of displacement in the Great Lakes Region. In the meantime, assistance is geared towards helping refugees meet some of their needs through livelihoods projects, rather than fully relying on aid agencies.
Until a durable solution is found, Gladys will remain in Uganda, where she might or might not realise her dream of becoming a doctor.
Information Assistant for Central East and Southern Africa
EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO)
Find more stories from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).