For two years now Odette and her family have been living at the “15th April” refugee camp in Betou, north-eastern Republic of the Congo. They left behind a good life in Dongo, located across the Oubangui river in the north-western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She used to buy fresh fish by the river and sell them in the city market. Her husband, a nurse, owned his own clinic. They also had some farming land to supplement the family income.
In 2010, fighting erupted between two local ethnic groups, the Bobas and Lobalas. Overnight, Odette’s family was forced to flee with no food, belongings or documents. Heavily pregnant, Odette joined her husband, children and others at the river, crossing in dugout canoes in the dark. When they reached Betou, they registered as refugees with the UNHCR field office.
Life is hard at the 15th April camp, home to more than 3,000 Congolese refugees like Odette. UNHCR provides them with limited food aid and relief supplies such as blankets and soap, which is crucial in the fight against diseases in the cholera-ridden tropical forest.
“We are surviving because the UNHCR is helping us, but God knows that this life is very difficult for us,” said Odette. “I am the man of the house now, because my husband cannot find any job here with no documents.”
To survive, Odette works on local farms when she can, but jobs are rare and competition is rife. Now eight months pregnant, the agricultural work is putting her health at risk. Her doctor at Médecins Sans Frontières has warned that her cervix is open and she could lose the baby. But she has no choice; no work means no food for the family. Already, her five-year-old son is showing signs of malnutrition.
Despite the daily struggles, Odette has reason to smile: UNHCR will soon start voluntary repatriation to Dongo. “I am about to give birth, but I want to become a mother again in my country.”
She added, “I’ve heard that our house does not exist anymore. It’s very unrealistic to say that life will be easy back in Dongo again, but there, we will have more options, we will live better and our kids too, especially if we shall be able to get back our land. My husband also wants us to leave; it’s about his dignity as a man, with no work here. We are just waiting for UNHCR to start the repatriation process. We are ready.”
More than 11,000 Congolese refugees have already returned to the DRC on their own. Some 130,000 remain in the Republic of Congo, the majority of them women. UNHCR estimates that more than 80,000 could return in the coming months.
By Daniela Livia Biciu
In Betou, Republic of the Congo (unhcr)