16 December 2012

Uganda: Shattered Families, Raped Lives in DR Congo

Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN
A woman recovers from rape in a hospital in Goma.

Refugees recount M23's invasion, rapes and murder:

Sounds of gunshots could be heard as Adolfi Mapenzi Habyambere; a 22 year old vocational student of Birambizo Institute went to bed that night. But they sounded very far off and Habyambere did not think the M23 rebels would reach Birambizo village in the Rutshuru territory of North Kivu where he was.

He woke up early next morning and went to school as usual.

Lessons were in full gear when, suddenly, three houses across from their school were hit by something that sounded like an explosion. All the students ran out of class.

"My friend called out 'M23!',"Habyambere, who speaks only French, narrated through an interpreter. He says he ran out of school amidst the ensuing chaos and followed the direction many people were taking as the gun shots intensified. Some of the people running beside him fell but he kept running and did not look back.

"It was too scary," he says. He says he kept thinking about what could have befallen his parents and siblings but he could not go back since they had run for quite a distance.

His biggest fear then was being captured and turned into a soldier. He had heard people telling stories about child soldiers.

"I did not want to kill anyone like the M23 rebels were doing," he says.

The following night, he and other fleeing Congolese reached the Ugandan border of Bunagana. Habyambere recalls being very thirsty and very hungry. A police truck from Uganda came and took them to a holding place near the border from where they were later again loaded on other trucks and driven through rough roads that cut through thick bushes.

Habyambere said he was anxious about where they were being taken. Finally, on July 23, Habyambere ended up over 100kms away from his home, at Rwamwanja Refugee camp in Nkoma sub-county of Kamwenge district of Uganda.

Habyambere says at the camp, he was placed in a 'family' of 10 people and given two mats and two blankets for all of them. They were taught how to make beds out of sticks.

"At first I was not used to sleeping on beds made out of sticks, and in a tent," he says. Five months later, when we spoke to him, he says he is used to the stick-beds and is, in fact, grateful for what the UN and World Food Progarmme is doing for over 20,000 Congolese refugees camped at Rwamwanja and more elsewhere.

Habyambere's story is similar to that of many refugees but some, especially women and young girls have even more harrowing tales. Isabel Katungu, a 20-year old girl still speaks with a lot of anguish in her voice and fights tears as she narrates the tragic day she went to the garden to collect some beans for the family.

"I was walking back from the garden and on the way I saw a group of men coming towards me," she says, "at first I was not scared but as they got nearer, I realised they were the FDLR rebels (Hutu or Intarahamye rebels)."

Katungu said she considered running but was scared of being shot. She decided to move on towards the men, with her head bowed down to show that she was harmless.

When she got close enough, two of the rebels moved forward and grabbed her.

"Oh, it's a girl, a beautiful girl covered up with beans," one of them said gleefully. They pushed her sack down and threw her on the ground.

Katungu said she screamed but no one could hear her as the path was a bit far a way from the main road.

"I realised screaming was not working," she says, "So I told them I have HIV/AIDS." That too did not deter the men who raped her in turns and while giggling all the time. She was lucky they did not kill her.

She walked back home without the beans and told her mother what had happened. Her mother cried every single day. Katungu got pregnant from the rape. Eight months later, when the M23 invaded their village of Kiwanja in DR Congo and killed some of their neighbours, Katungu ran with fellow neighbours towards the border of Uganda. They walked and ran for days until they reached Ishasha (Queen Elizabeth National Park) and a police truck came to rescue them.

They were quickly moved to the Rwamwanja UN base camp where they were temporarily sheltered in a tent. After some weeks at the refuge camp, Katungu was rushed to the Rwamwanja Health Centre were she delivered her baby in September.

Before the day she was raped, Katungu had never seen rebels but had only heard of them in stories. Her mind is filled with pain and answerable questions; what to do about her child who has three rebel fathers? Are her mother and siblings still alive or are they dead?

Just like Katungu, Habyambere and other refugees also wonder what became of their relatives who stayed behind. Since the conflict between the M23 rebels fighting for restitution from the government of DRC President Joseph Kabila escalated in April, hundreds of civilians have died in brutal attacks by the army and rebels.

Eight-year old Michellina says her mother was killed by the M23 rebels. She fled to Uganda with her father, Nukhe Rugamba, a 43-year old farmer. She and her father now share a tent with Habyambere.

Michellina attends the UNHCR refugee school, St. Michael Primary, and says life in the camp is more peaceful than in Congo. She is worried about her siblings who were left back home in Congo, especially she says, now that their father is here in Rwamwanja and they have no one to protect them.

Life in the Camps:

The trauma of not knowing the fate of their loved ones makes life in Rwamwanja camp, where food is scarce and up to 800 people depend on a single borehole for water, even more painful. Habyambere says thinking about his relatives gives him sleepless nights. At times, he has nightmares of the dying.

To help him forget, he keeps himself busy as a volunteer at the health centre and helps the nurses and other Congolese refugees to get treatment since he speaks Swahili and understands some English so he translates for them.

On the day we visited the camp, the World Food Trucks, were arriving with food donations from the Japanese embassy in Uganda.

As the World Food Programme trucks turned the corner, the excited refugees chanted Congolese songs, beat their drums, and children and adults danced with joy.

"Music is good," said one man who was introduced as the choir leader, "it heals us."

There is always a party atmosphere we were told, when the UN brings more food to the camp.

Soon masses of men and women queued as the Japanese Ambassador, Kazuo Minagawa, made a symbolic distribution of food and the camp officials started doling it out. Groups of women came forward to collect sacks of maize meal which they carried on their heads and wobbled away. As some fell under the weight of the sacks, it was clear they were not used to such hard labour.

Japan contributed US$5million to WFP, out of which US$2 million was to provide relief for the refugees that continue to arrive every day. Each family of 10 gets 15kg of maize meal, 2kg of beans and 3 litres of oil. That is very little, says Habyambere. Michellina says her father plants some of the beans given to them to improve on their food basket while they wait for the world food programme to bring them more. Each family has about 1.5 acres of land to till and plant.

Ambassador, Kazuo Minagawa said the earthquake of unprecedented magnitude in world history that struck his country last year and left many of the people as refugees had made Japanese aware of what it is like to be a refugee.

He said Japan was more keenly aware of the importance of international solidarity and will continue to give money to the World Food Programme to extend assistance to those afflicted by conflict and natural disasters.

But for Habyambere, his only wish is for the fighting in his country to end so that he can go back to school again and reunite with his family.

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