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Terrified DRC refugees prefer hunger to home

27 November 2014, 10:44

Lukwangulo - "I don't want to go home! What I saw there won't let me go back," cried Sakina Okenge, who fled her birthplace in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago in terror at attacks by Rwandan rebels.

Thousands like her prefer to live in abject poverty in refugee camps rather than risk being raped, killed or robbed by the Hutu rebels who were chased into this blighted part of the vast central African country following the Rwandan genocide two decades ago.

"Even if they're chased out, deep down inside I'm afraid to go home," the 50-year-old Okenge told AFP. "I saw people killed and women raped before my eyes."

Despite facing hunger, and struggling to put their children through school, many of those sheltering at Lukwangulo and other refugee camps in mineral-rich Katanga province feel the same way.

Also read: Dozens shot, stabbed, set on fire in DRC

Fighters of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) have been terrorising their homeland ever since they were driven out of Rwanda in 1994, accused of taking part in the massacre of at least 800 000 people, mostly minority Tutsis.

Murders, looting and the forced recruitment of local youths have not stopped since the FDLR - said to number around 1 500 fighters - set up bases in the troubled eastern provinces of North and South Kivu as well as parts of Katanga, further to the southeast.

Congolese authorities have warned the FDLR to disarm by 2 January or face a joint offensive by the army and an intervention brigade of the large UN mission in the country.

But the army and the UN are already struggling to defeat Ugandan rebels who have massacred up to 200 people in a gruesome series of machete attacks in North Kivu province in the last month.

'My children were killed'

Most people at Lukwangulo camp fled for their lives from South Kivu, about 100km to the north.

While hacking through a forest as he escaped, Bonet Kilauli, 37, was bitten by a snake on the foot. He tried to cure the infection with herbal remedies, "but gangrene set in and my leg fell off by itself. I treated the stump with plants".

Kilauli, who has seven children, is among those determined to stay. "I lost my mother, my two older brothers... In light of what I've known, I don't want to go back to South Kivu - even if the FDLR are chased out."

Tabu Shamani, a 53-year-old mother from the same village, is similarly traumatised. "I had 11 children. Two were killed and my husband too. I won't go back for anything in the world. Nothing proves that it's safe and if I return I'm going to lose more children."

The Pygmy chief of Lukwangulo, Kabwa Asumani Lukwangulo, has taken in the displaced people without discrimination, regardless of tensions that exist elsewhere between Pygmies and Bantus in the region.

"When we arrived, he gathered strips of cassava for us," said Assani Selemani, a teacher who arrived in 2010. "He alerted relief workers to our situation, he put us to work... He's a good chief."

As a teacher, Selemani was allowed to put his children in the local school, but many parents are unable to pay the monthly fee of 2 500 Congolese francs ($2.7) for their education.

Displaced people work for local farmers but often they are only paid with cassava - not enough to live on.

Aid rations cut

The Katanga region may be one of the most mineral-rich in the world, with huge reserves of cobalt, copper, uranium and diamonds, but the refugees are staring hunger in the face.

Last week, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said it was "deeply concerned about the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Katanga", estimating the number of displaced people in the province at 600 000.

"The limited presence of humanitarian organisations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services," the agency warned.

With the UN's World Food Programme suffering from a global cash shortage, staff have had to cut rations by half because of lack of funds.

"The line between 'poor' families and those judged 'acceptable' is very fine," said the local WFP chief Jean de la Croix Bouladeyi Bassono, whose staff must decide who goes without rations.

"If only someone could help us by creating activities that generate income," said Okenge, who is in charge of the women in the camp.

Selemani the teacher is trying to obtain seeds and ploughing tools. "We're not going to hold our hand out to the WFP the whole time," he said.



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