Thousands flee to Uganda as Congo hunts renegade commander


It was the six rebel soldiers who hacked down the door of Elias Ngahaga’s house one night two weeks ago in Kesaha, eastern Congo, who led him and his family to flee to Uganda from his village, where government troops and rebels are fighting.
“We were frightened. They had guns and pangas (machetes),” said Ngahaga, 20, sheltering from the rain in an abandoned building on the edge of a temporary refugee camp in western Uganda. “They took clothes, potatoes, sheets, goats and money.”

Ngahaga is one of many who have fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to escape the fighting between the army and rebel soldiers led by General Bosco Ntaganda, a renegade general wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

Clashes erupted after Congolese President Joseph Kabila announced last month that he would try to arrest Ntaganda, known as the “Terminator,” who is wanted for recruiting child soldiers to fight in northeastern Congo.

Ntaganda, previously a rebel commander, was integrated into the army with his soldiers after a rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda led to a peace deal in 2009 with Tutsi-led rebels.But Ntaganda and hundreds of his men mutinied in April, sparking clashes with government troops that have pushed thousands of frightened villagers into fleeing the DRC for the safety of neighbouring Rwanda and Uganda.

Johnson Kyomukama, branch manager of the Uganda Red Cross for Kisoro district, told Reuters that around 40,000 refugees had crossed into that district alone.
“There are thousands of those people at the border,” said Ugandan Relief and Disaster Preparedness Minister Musa Ecweru. “Some have decided they can’t go back. They would want to be given asylum,” he said.

“I (left with) the babies and the clothes I’m wearing,” said secondary school teacher Ngahaga, who fled with his wife and three children. His sweat shirt and yellow plastic sandals were streaked with mud.

Since reaching Uganda, Ngahaga’s family has been staying near the Bunagana border crossing in a makeshift shelter made out of sticks covered with a tarpaulin and leaves to keep out the rain. Others have had to sleep outside on the ground.

The U.N. refugee agency is in the process of transporting refugees from the border crossing to nearby Nyakabande.

Refugees carrying suitcases, mattresses and other belongings crowded into the back of trucks to be taken to a transit centre run by the UNHCR, the Red Cross and the Ugandan government.
“The people that are coming across are entire families and entire villages. It is almost a preventative movement because there is heavy fighting inside (Congo),” said Sakura Atsumi, UNHCR’s deputy representative for Uganda.

Atsumi said the UNHCR had helped 2,870 refugees in the transit centre at Nyakabande.

Some of the refugees have fled their villages many times because of fighting in the region, and many say they are tired of the perennial insecurity in their home country.

John Bigirimana is only 26 but has fled his home near Goma five times since 1996.
“Rebels told us to leave our houses. They said that they were beating people to intimidate them, to chase them from the area,” said Bigirimana.

He walked for four days with his wife and six children to escape the fighting in his village of Kibumba.
“Why would you again return to this country with this situation?”