More than 100,000 people have been forced from their homes in Ituri province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as result of violence in the area of Djugu. The resurgence of violence in Ituri began in December 2017 and intensified in February. Many of those affected have fled to other parts of DRC, north towards Mahagi or south towards Bunia, while tens of thousands of others have crossed Lake Albert seeking safety in Uganda. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are working in both DRC and Uganda to help people displaced by the attacks.
In Uganda, reception facilities have been overwhelmed by the number of new arrivals. Health authorities recently confirmed a cholera outbreak in the region, which has resulted in at least 36 deaths and nearly 1,800 people hospitalized with severe cases. MSF is responding to the cholera outbreak, and providing basic health care and vaccinations to the refugees. With inadequate access to food and shelter, the situation remains dire.
Analysts are trying to understand why fighting involving the Lendu and Hema communities has reignited in Ituri province. A climate of uncertainty prevails, making it difficult to know exactly what is behind the violence and to identify the perpetrators. For many of the refugees arriving in Uganda, what is certain is that these attacks are more than a revival of the historical tensions between the communities.
MSF teams in Uganda have heard testimonies from survivors describing their homes systematically torched, and people hunted down and murdered in the forest. “This is the first time I’ve fled DRC,” explains Imani, age 53, who lived through the war in Ituri in the 2000s. “It’s different this time. In the 2000s, our homes were torched too, but we were able to go back to our villages. Now people are being hunted down and killed. The attackers chase us with dogs into the forest.”
One woman, Sifa, who is in her forties, was living in Ituri after being displaced by conflict some 15 years ago. “We were first displaced to a village called Kafé, near the lake,” she says. “But the attacks kept getting closer. The attackers were determined to kill everyone and there was nobody to protect us. I decided to come here with my kids, who are 12 and 15, to be safe.”
Baraka, age 20, is a fisherman from Kafé who witnessed some of the violence from his boat. “On March 8, at about 5 in the morning, villages on the banks of the lake were on fire,” says Baraka. “When I got closer to Kafé, I saw a woman running towards the lake. A man armed with a machete caught up with her and killed her.” He went to the market town of Tchomia to get a boat that could take him to Uganda to join his wife and two children.
Many were separated from their family members during their escape. Children, pregnant women, and elderly people have been forced to fend for themselves.
Henriette, who is around 20 years old, has been living in Kagoma reception center in Hoima district, Uganda, for the past ten days. She fled when her village in Djugu came under attack in the middle of January. She does not know where her husband or her child are since losing them in the confusion of the attack and flight. She gave up a suitcase of clothes to pay for the crossing to Uganda. Four months pregnant, Henriette has no one to support her.
While a system has been set up in Uganda to provide protection and assistance to the refugees, facilities in Hoima district are no longer able to cope with the numbers of people who continue to arrive. There is still insufficient international humanitarian aid.
Emmanuel, a father of eight, had attempted to return to Ituri to see how his fields were doing and bring back some food. “I went to the field very early in the morning to get some manioc. I saw flames in the villages near the lake. I didn’t know what was on fire,” Emmanuel says. “As everything had seemed calm in the previous few days, people in my village—who’d been sleeping in the forest because they were scared of the attacks—had returned home. The attackers came back at dawn. They attacked people with machetes, killing as many as they could. The only way for me to survive was to flee again. I brought nothing back with me.”