“When the soldiers started to shoot, I ran. I thought my family was following,” the 15-year-old told UNHCR after arriving at the Nkamira Transit Centre. He was one of more than 6,200 people to flee to Rwanda from Democratic Republic of the Congo’s North Kivu province since April 27.
Most are women, children and the elderly coming from North Kivu’s Masisi and Walikale territories, where the fighting between government forces and soldiers loyal to former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda also left almost 20,000 people internally displaced. News reports on Sunday said the army had ended its operations against mutinous troops.
Arsène said the fighting was chaotic, and civilians were caught in the crossfire. “I first heard gunshots, then I saw soldiers coming from behind a hill. One soldier was shot in the head. I do not know which side he was fighting for, all soldiers were wearing the same uniform,” he recalled.
“I fled only with the clothes on my back,” said Arsène, who was wearing his white school shirt under a dark blue sweater. “I am in Rwanda, but I am alone now,” the boy said, his voice growing soft.
Sarah’s family were also separated in the flight to Rwanda from their village in Masisi territory, which lies to the west of the North Kivu capital, Goma. She was working in the fields when the conflict swept into their area.
“Suddenly, our neighbours came rushing by, screaming. They said there was fighting in the area, so I hurried home. Two of my children were gone, I don’t know where they ran. I took my [other five] children, I took a few kilos of beans, and I ran,” the 40-year-old widow said, with a resigned look.
People have become almost inured to the cycle of violence in eastern Congo, and many have been displaced several times. Others resting in the massive warehouse tents (rubb halls) in Nkamira have similar tales to Sarah. But she also remained hopeful, purtting her faith in the ability of UNHCR and its partners to help find her missing two children.
This latest influx of people from North Kivu has put great strain on the Nkamira Transit Centre, which was visited on Sunday by officials from North Kivu, including Governor Julien Paluku Kahongya, who thanked Rwanda for hosting the refugees and said he hoped they could all go home soon.
After crossing into Rwanda at the border town of Gisenyi, the new arrivals have been transported by UNHCR and its partners to the Nkamira Transit Centre, 22 kilometres to the east. They are provided with food and items such as plastic mats, jerry cans, and crockery, but shelter is a major concern because the transit centre was only built to accommodate 2,600 people. With the urgent rehabilitation of 19 old rubb hall tents and the construction of 13 new ones, the capacity will be increased to 5,400.
Meanwhile, the government of Rwanda, UNHCR and many of its partners have worked tirelessly to provide clean water, sanitation facilities and basic health services. But if people continue arriving at a high rate, there will soon be critical gaps in humanitarian assistance.
Liz Ahua, deputy director of UNHCR’s Africa Bureau, warned that “a new site will have to be found if more refugees continue to arrive on a daily basis.”The rate of arrival has fallen since last week, but almost 400 entered Rwanda on Sunday.
While the UN refugee agency is discussing longer-term solutions with the Rwandan government, urgent donor support is needed in the short term. Rwanda is already hosting some 55,000 Congolese refugees who live in three already crowded camps across the country.
In recent years, the Nkamira Centre has hosted Rwandans as they returned to their home country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They stayed here for one or two days before being transported to their villages of origin by UNHCR.
By Anouck Bronée in Nkamira Transit Centre, Rwanda.(UNHCR)