Wednesday, September 12, 2012

DR Congo Louise's story

The conflict between government forces and armed rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has displaced hundreds of thousands of Congolese villagers.
Three months after fighting began in the North-Kivu province, the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is saturating the capacity of 'official' refugee camps, and forcing spontaneous settlements to form around Goma.
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, more than 470,000 people have fled their homes since fighting began in April, and more are on their way out. Some 200,000 of them are in North Kivu, while another 200,000 are in South Kivu, and more than 50,000 have fled to Uganda and Rwanda.
The Uganda figure alone is now over 114000 refugees and climbing
The village of Kanyarucinya, situated 10 kilometers North of Goma, is one of the many towns taken-over by IDPs. According to the Norwegian Church Aid, a non-profit providing emergency assistance to those living in Kanyarucinya, the village is home to nearly 7,000 of these settlers.
Louise Baseme, 28, arrived two weeks ago. She says she fled to save her baby's life.
"I left as soon as I heard that the rebels were heading towards our village. I didn't really know anything about conflict, but we heard about the fighting over the radio and I got really scared," said Baseme.
She spent the first week hiding in bushes near her home, waiting for the conflict to calm down. With no information outlet, and no more contact with other villagers, she assessed the level of immediate danger by carefully listening for gunshots and measuring their distance.
"We had nothing; no money or food. But I was able to find some fruits here and there," said Baseme. "Then one day we were woken up by mortars exploding near us, and I decided to just go."
Imagine how difficult that decision is. Louise is not only leaving her home she is now cut off from her family and friends and quite probably will never see them again. 
The young mother spent the following days walking south towards Goma, carrying her baby on her back.
Baseme admits she knew nothing of the conflict between rebels of the March 23 Movement (M23) and the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), other than the danger it represented to her family. However, this wasn't the first time she's had to flee gunshots. In 2008, she made the same journey south during the conflict between the FARDC and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), another local rebel group.
Baseme says children from the North-Kivu province of RDC grow up learning about past conflicts from stories their parents' stories.
"If we live in peace, it's only for a short time, and we are always ready in case there is war because it's happened so many times," said Baseme.
This conflict is the bloodiest since WWII and has claimed over 5 million lives. It is all very well for Ugandan Foreign Minister Henry Oryem to " have lost trust " in the UN but the reality is the UN are doing an almost impossible task and the situation would be far worse without them.
Even though Baseme arrived a fortnight ago, she is considered as one of the new faces of Kanyarucinya. Because of the number of IDPs who arrived before her, she stands at the back of a long waiting line. In fact, she still hasn't received any attention from the NGOs working in the camp, and continues to wait for one of the much-coveted food stamps they distribute.
The lack of shelter also means that Baseme lives outside in a 4 foot-square perimeter she's build using small volcanic stones. She sleeps on a homemade mattress made by weaving together bamboo leaves that soften the rocky floor. During the day, she roams the village in search of food, carrying her baby under a formerly white cloth in order to protect his small lungs from the winds of ash swirling in the camp. Baseme says she has survived this long, strictly because of the generosity of other IDPs and nearby villagers who share the little they have.
"We get by, barely, but we do," said Baseme, "by asking those who receive food. But we cannot sustain this type of living."
It isn't living it is surviving. New Zealand takes just 700 refugees a year and that per capita is I gather about what the rest of the developed world takes but surely we could do better. If Uganda has to cope with 114,000 refugees couldn't we manage 7000 per year.  
One of those helping Baseme is Bernard Ntwimenyumusi. The 51-year old stands out from the crowd, not only because he is one of the few men in the camp, but also because of his close-shaved face and impeccably ironed orange dress shirt.
Ntwimenyumusi lives in Goma, far enough to avoid the sight of hungry children. But every morning, he calls a taxi-moto to drive him to Kanyarucinya, and confronts this painful reality.
"Every time I come, I see new faces," said Ntwimenyumusi. "Those who are arriving now die from hunger because they need to get stand behind those who have been here for a long time, and at some point the distribution stops before they get their turn."
In order to help the new arrivals, Ntwimenyumusi opened his home last month to several families seeking shelter. He currently houses more than 20 people, and shares his family's food reserves with them.
That is a very courageous act on Bernard Ntwimenyumusi's part.  
"When you are a parent, when you are a Congolese citizen, you can't do anything but give what you have to those who are less fortunate," said Ntwimenyumusi, who insists his neighbors do more than him by hosting up to 50 people in a single home.
"Nearly everyone is trying to help, but it's hard when you don't have the resources for yourself, or any guarantees that you will be able to continue to provide in the future," said Ntwimenyumusi.

Louisa's story is of course not unique. 

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