KOBOKO. Located about 15 kilometers East of Koboko Town in Lobule Sub County, Koboko district, Lobule refugee camp is one of the settlement camps hosting Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) refugees in Uganda.
The camp was established in September 2013 at the height of insurgency by the M18 rebels who also called themselves the United Congolese Peoples’ Army.
The guerrillas allegedly caused mayhem in Eastern DRC through rape, killings, burning of houses and kidnap. The war forced thousands of people to flee their homes with many crossing the border into Uganda and mainly settled in West Nile region.
The refugees were from the areas of Turupa, Gombe, Morodu, Gaaki, Lisoka and Pamara in Aru Territory, Ituri province.
They were received at Oraba and Keri reception centers in Kuluba Sub County, Koboko district, before being transferred to Lobule refugee settlement camp.
In the settlements, one cannot differentiate between the refugees and the host communities, the houses are the ordinary ones built with bricks and thatched with grass, while some solar lights have been placed in selected trading centres, the Congolese complain of snakes entering their houses at. They complain of not been given solar torches similar to what has been given to South Sudanese refugees.
According to Mr Mark Mutaawe, the officer in charge of Lobule refugee settlement camp under the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), the last group of the Congolese refugees to be settled at the Camp was in mid-2014.
“At that time we had a population of over 5, 000 Congolese refugees and now they are 4, 564. The number reduced when we realized that some of the refugees were Ugandans who had gone for business trips in Congo, forcing us to reunite them with their relatives,” Mr Mutaawe explained.
He said all the refugees are settled in two zones of A and B with each hosting four villages. Mr Mutaawe explained that the refugees used to receive food ration but when they became self-reliant, World Vision started giving them cash on behalf of World Food Program (WFP).
“The refugees are given sh31, 000 per head in 12 circles a year. This is 100 percent ratio equivalent to food,” Mr Mutaawe narrated.
While there are a multitude of national and international organizations working in areas hosting South Sudanese, the Congolese have only two, the Koboko district local government and Humanitarian Assistance for Development Service (HADS).
Refugees speak out
Ms Fatuma Ajonye, 55, the refugee welfare council one vice chairperson of Waju I village believes that their government and humanitarian agencies have forgotten about them.
Ms Ajonye said since the coming of South Sudan refugees, the attention of humanitarian agencies shifted from them.
“Food is now not enough for us because the money we receive is not enough. We use the sh31, 000 given to us every month for buying food, clothes and at the end, it is not enough to pay the school fees of our children,” she stated.
She said before the coming of South Sudan refugees, the elderly, critically sick refugees, widows and refugees with disabilities used to receive sh45, 000 per month but the amount has now been slashed to sh31, 000 with many now crying of unbearable conditions.
Ms Ajonye suggested that at least if the amount could be increased to sh50, 000, they can be able to save to pay their children in school and use the balance for buying food at home.
“We were allocated plots measuring 30 x 30 meters per family and this is where we are expected to construct shelters, dig pit latrine, graze our animals and cultivate to survive besides the money we receive,” Mr James Lupai, another refugee lamented.
Mr Lupai noted that currently, it is hard to buy meat or fish as diet for their children since the money they receive can only afford beans at home.
Meanwhile Mrs Nesta Taibo, 62, a single mother of 3 appealed to the government of DRC to come to their rescue saying their living condition is increasingly deteriorating.
Her frustration has gone to the extent that she no longer want to talk to any visitor in the camp. We tell her that we are journalists who have come to carry her voice to the powers that be that she accepts to talk to us.
“We urge our government to come to our aide. The Ambassador of DRC to Kampala should take time to come and visit us here so as to see our living conditions for himself. It is time to start thinking of repatriating us home because we have lived here for long,” Mrs Taibo explained.
She said at the moment, it is hard to get drugs from Pijoke Health Centre III, the only health unit at the whole of Lobule settlement Camp. “Sometimes we sit there for the whole day without getting drugs yet the money we get can’t afford drugs from private clinics,” Mr Taibo narrated.
Mr Fred Asi Buzu, the Lobule settlement camp community services officer – OPM said Lobule camp had reached that level of self-reliance, a reason UNHCR focus shifted on infrastructural development and livelihood programs.
Mr Buzu noted that for now the target is to construct roads, bridges, and classroom blocks and provide skills training to the Congolese refugees since they have lived here for many years to be able to start harvesting their own food and use the little money to supplement on their ration.
But Mr Mutaawe acknowledged that currently, little is being done for Congolese refugees in Lobule.
He said the International Community tend to focus on the hot cake which is for this case the South Sudan refugees.
“First of all, South Sudan refugees are new and big in number compared to Congolese refugees and every proposal is right now focused on them,” Mr Mutaawe said, adding that South Sudanese have come with nothing to eat as opposed to Congolese refugees who can harvest something from their fields.
He said even the focus of UNHCR resources is mainly on South Sudan refugees.
On the call for repatriation, Mr Mutaawe observed that the government of DRC has to show commitment by sending a delegation to convince the refugees to go back home.
“It is not upon us the government of Uganda to tell these people to go back. They should first be willing to go back home so that the government comes in to welcome them if the conditions that forced them to flee have become favourable,” Mr Mutaawe said.
He said later UNHCR will assess the situation and when found hostile, the UN Agency has powers to halt the repatriation process.
Unfortunately for the refugees, they are among the minority tribes in Eastern DRC whom the current crop of leaders in the Ituri province know little about. Some of the leaders are also not aware that the country has refugees in West Nile.
On several cross border security meetings, the refugees have been mistaken as rebels, at one meeting at Vurra customs in 2016, the Congolese official accused their Ugandan counter parts of training rebels in Koboko to attack them. Though they have on several occasions been invited to come and visit the camp, the Congolese have often turned down the invitation.