Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dying Slowly; how life goes in a refugee camp. Kyaka II Refugee Camp

An article on Kyaka II Refugee Camp, a camp where Think Humanity has been working to improve conditions for refugees. In 2011 we have built two clean water wells, distributed bed nets, gave birthing kits, shoes and school supplies. To help us in Kyaka II, please visit the website and donate. Specify where you would like your donation to go.
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Kampala (Uganda), August 2009. Kyaka II refugee settlement lays on a vast area amidst the lush and green-painted hills of western Uganda. This is home to roughly 16,000 refugees, mostly coming form the DRC, Sudan and Rwanda. These people are part of the 31 million under the formal responsibility of the UNHCR: the size of an average European country, a country without borders and without official representatives.

Young refugees - Kyaka II Refugee camp, Uganda

Joseph has been living in Kyaka II for nine years, his degree has no recognition in Uganda so he cannot work. He sleeps under a hut that he made himself with wood and mud and covered with a piece of white plastic provided by the United Nations, just like any other hut around the camp. The United Nations also give him a monthly ration of maize flour and rice, which is only enough for the first three weeks. Joseph manages to find the rest by digging the small maize field he was assigned, the economy here is exclusively rural. I ask him how he arrived in Kyaka II: he escaped on foot for 500 Kilometers through the Congolese forest; half of his family was taken away by war and he lost contact with the other half after a fire destroyed the hut he lived before, burning his address book and mobile phone. Joseph tells his story calmly, as if he is talking about someone else.

Central-Eastern Africa has been hit by two of the most violent conflicts in the recent history of the continent: the Rwandese 1994 genocide and the Second Congo War, which, not surprisingly, is best known as Africa’s World War. As a result, Kyaka II, like other camps in the area, is melting pot of people from different backgrounds, languages and cultures. It is a potentially explosive mix of victims and murderers, rapists and innocents. The overall community does not seem to decrease, as recent fights in the North Kivu and in Kenya following the 2007 elections are securing fresh inflows of refugees. Since most of the people inside the camp lost their family ties and bonds, traditional networks of support are being replaced by fragile and shaky newly-built household networks. This is a reason why social cohesion is not strong enough to provide support to everybody and prevent conflicts.
Many refugees, especially women, are nevertheless trying to work together and see themselves as being all on the same boat, helped by humanitarian projects carried on in the camp. For instance, a group of two dozens of women is making sanitary pads in a small factory funded by the UNHCR. Unfortunately, such kind of projects are too few and uncoordinated to effectively help the whole community.

What strikes me more about refugees’ life is the extreme shakiness they are forced into. In one of the tiny villages of the settlement live some Rwandese families, their kids are scratching about at the time they are supposed to be at a camp school, in one of those classrooms with one teacher and one hundred pupils. I ask their parents about it, and their answer, faultless and logic, sounds something like: “We are waiting to be repatriated, it makes no sense to pay the school fees if we are going back to Rwanda soon.” The problem is that none of them was told the day of repatriation, it could be a matter of two months or two years. Hence, for two months or for two years, their kids are not going to school.

Refugee woman, Kyaka II Refugee camp, Uganda

The existence of refugees entirely depends on the intermittent and unpredictable repatriation arrangements between the government of their home country, the Ugandan officials and the United Nations. Planning a future in Uganda is impossible for them: finding a job outside the camp (the necessary condition to exit from it) is too hard, not to talk about achieving the Ugandan citizenship. So, most of them remain inside the settlement, where at least they have their food ration. Unfortunately, for many of them, life inside the camp can turn into a hell.

Patrick, for instance, is a 32 years old man who escaped from the North Kivu. As he reached the Ugandan border, he was put on a UNHCR vehicle and taken to Kyangwale refugee camp, where he found the very persons that killed his parents and burnt his house back in the Congo. They threatened him to death and they burnt his hut, forcing him to sleep every night in a different place. After months, he succeeded to be transferred to another camp: he is now in Kyaka II. However, Patrick is not feeling safe even here, he wishes he could escape to a new country. His voice trembles as he tells me that he is trying not to reveal his origin to anyone, but such a discretion is impracticable here, and intrinsically dodgy. Anyway, between one escape and the other, he found the time to get a wife, but it didn’t work out for the best: he chose a woman from a different ethnic group, which made him lose the support of his companions.

Safety problems like the ones of Patrick are quite common inside the camp, together with rapes, robberies and arsons. For this reason, the settlement administration was recently entrusted to a military commandant, who gets his wage from both the Ugandan government and the UNHCR. No accident, then, that all Ugandan refugee settlements are built next to military bases.

Outside the commandant office I meet Baunda, a Congolese man from the South Kivu who has been living in Kyaka II for a whole fifteen years. The camp, he tells me, is like a prison without locks and gates, where life is in a state of oblivion. I dare to ask him to compare his life in the Congo with the one in the camp. This is his answer: “I had to make a choice: staying in the Congo and dying suddenly or escaping and dying slowly. I chose to die slowly.”

Dying slowly: how life goes in a refugee camp

In Africa, Migration on January 11, 2010 by admin Tagged: Africa's world war, Kyaka II, North Kivu, refugee camp, Uganda, United Nations

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