* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“DRC will never have peace – if there’s no war today, there’s war tomorrow.”
At first glance you might not know that a crisis is unfolding just across the lake, where the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is within seeing distance.
The Ugandan shore of Lake Albert is no longer full of 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.
You can no longer see feces floating in the same water used by women to wash their clothes and children to fill bottles of water.
Now, the fish market which was transformed into a refugee landing site has a few people scattered around, resting under the shade or standing with the few belongings they could 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, a village some 270 kilometres northwest of the capital Kampala, for the first time in early February during the height of the refugee influx across Lake Albert. At that time the number of weekly arrivals 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, on the other side of the lake and in transit – with several boats capsizing or children falling overboard and drowning.
Although the influx has significantly reduced, with about 30 people arriving on the day of my recent visit in early April, the stories are eerily similar to the ones I heard before, with the conflict in DRC not looking as if it will end anytime soon. The number of people in need of assistance almost doubled in 2017 and is expected to increase in 2018.
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 two-year-old daughter. Back home, 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 told me her story while sitting in front of a boat similar to the one she arrived in, which she said was very crowded with people and their belongings, and cost each person 20,000 Uganda shillings for the journey.
She told me that the violence hadn’t reached her village yet but was nearing every day. Looking at the ground, she said that there had been a lot of mass killings, with perpetrators using machetes to cut people to pieces, burning down houses and stealing livestock and land. She and her husband made the difficult decision to leave before their village also fell, and they had to leave most of their belongings behind.
When I asked her if she plans on ever going back she looked past me and replied: “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 there is little hope for peace in DRC, Gloria told me she hopes to start a new life in Uganda’s Kyangwali refugee camp, where CARE Uganda is responding with gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health services for women who have been displaced.
We have built a Women and Girls’ Centre – safe spaces for survivors of gender-based violence, and for women and girls who feel at risk – and we are building more. Here, women and girls can receive counselling and psychosocial support, as well as assistance in accessing critical services including health and shelter. We are also distributing essentials such as sanitary items.
The situation in DRC shows no signs of abating. More than 69,000 refugees have fled to Uganda since the beginning of 2018. The majority of them are women and girls, many of whom have experienced one or more forms of gender-based violence.
The scale of need in DRC is enormous – and the country’s refugees are already impacting on not only Uganda but Angola, Zambia, Burundi, Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. With more people in need, aid agencies need more funds.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
Ruwani Dharmakirthi is a Peace Corps Volunteer with CARE International in Uganda.