Sunday, April 12, 2009

Nyori Refugee Camp, Story & Photos

I had a chance to visit the Nyori Refugee Camp recently, for Congolese running from the Lord's Resistance Army, and fleeing into southern Sudan. I'll include the article I wrote about it below the slideshow.

In the shade of an enormous tree, Kulito Change sells Pure Milk brand Glucose Biscuits, bright-blue Mukwano bar soap, and small pieces of candy. Fifty meters to his left, a long line of men and women wait to register their bar-coded ration cards at a table cordoned off with red-and-white police tape tied to the antenna of a nearby Land Cruiser.

“Two packs for one pound,” he says hesitantly, pointing to the biscuits.

Whether he’s struggling over the English phrase, or the currency exchange isn’t clear – he’s more accustomed to selling in Congolese Francs, and to speaking French or Lingala.

Five weeks ago Change arrived at the Nyori refugee camp from the village of Aba, 18 kilometers from the camp and 10 kilometers outside the Sudanese village of Lasu. He and 6,000 others fled after the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) attacked Aba in December.

“The LRA came, they destroyed homes, and they killed many people,” he says.

Founded in 1986 under the leadership of Joseph Kony, the LRA has become infamous for widespread atrocities in Northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and southern Sudan, notably the kidnapping of children to use as soldiers. According to the Swiss NGO Trial Watch, more than 85 percent of LRA fighters are children between the ages of 11 and 15, 40 percent of them young women.

Kony, who claims to be guided by visions instructing him to overthrow the Ugandan government, and to conduct attacks as a means of ‘purification,’ has largely led the LRA away from northern Uganda in recent years. Beginning in December 2008, a joint operation has combined the Ugandan, southern Sudanese, and Congolese military forces in the border region, in an attempt to eliminate the LRA. Despite this, the LRA has attacked numerous times along the DRC and Sudanese borders, in Aba and other communities.

With ongoing attacks in the region, refugees have flooded into southern Sudan, leading to a string of camps along the DRC/Sudan border. According to the United Nations, more than 16,000 refugees have fled Congo, spread across an area of 600 kilometers. Since their arrival, the refugees in Nyori camp have depended largely on the support provided by international agencies, as they were forced to abandon virtually everything as they fled their homes. And while they appreciate the work relief agencies are doing, some wonder if either the camp authorities or the Congolese government are listening to their concerns. Despite the challenge, however, they are moving forward, building what they can in the midst of a violently disrupted life.

Nyori camp, run by NGOs, and coordinated by the United Nations’ organization for refugee affairs, the UNHCR, straddles a small creek. At the bottom of the steep ravine, a newly painted red-and-white wooden bridge connects the two sides of the camp. On either side, the refugees live in small rectangular grass huts, most of which have been reinforced with UNHCR-issued white plastic sheeting.

Jamba Abarago’s small hut sits at the edge of Nyori. An older man, Abarago is the Chef de Camp, the ‘Camp Chief.’ Wearing a faded French Football Association jersey, he sits on a folding chair made from animal hide and wood with a small group of other men and describes the situation. A crowd quickly gathers.

Abarago says roughly 600 LRA soldiers attacked Aba, killed the village administrator and burned numerous buildings and vehicles. Several children were kidnapped; many others were murdered.

“They killed more than 100 people,” he remembers, speaking in French.

According to Gaston Madsona, another refugee, the LRA forces attacked as a group, but quickly split into smaller units.

“They divided up so they could kidnap more of the children,” he says.

After the attack, residents of Aba began to flee.

“We abandoned our manioc and peanut fields,” remembers Samuel Binima, another one of the men gathered around Abarago. The people of Aba and other surrounding communities traditionally rely on agriculture to support themselves, as industry in the region is all but non-existent.

Among the refugees from Aba, there is a pervasive frustration, a sense of ‘why us?.’ People in Nyori camp struggle to understand what would motivate the LRA to attack inside DRC, or anywhere other than northern Uganda. The cross-border region, a small sliver of territory where the Ugandan, Sudanese and Congolese frontiers intersect is largely an unpatrolled and unenforceable area, giving LRA fighters the flexibility to strike when and where they choose, seeking to terrorize the population, and steal supplies.

When the people of Aba fled, some came via the main road from the Congo border, with others making their way through the bush, arriving near the site that would become Nyori camp within a day or two. Once they arrived, UNHCR began working with the refugees to provide basic needs such as food, water, and sanitation.

“The UN helped us with things like jerricans and buckets,” says Change, the young man selling biscuits.

While NGOs have been working diligently at Nyori since the refugees arrival to provide support, distributing buckets, silverware, and plastic sheeting, and other items from large cargo containers at the edge of the camp, some feel they are having a difficult time getting key needs met.

“We don’t have enough food, and it’s causing nutritional problems,” says Logala Bang. “We only have sorghum and beans,”

“The health situation is catastrophic. Many people have died even since we came here,” adds Madsona.

The Aba refugees are concerned about a lack of educational opportunities. Many of the young people who fled Aba were in the middle of the school year, and there is a great deal of concern that the academic year will be an année blanche, a wasted year. Rather than being in classrooms, even makeshift ones, school-age girls gather at the bridge to wash red and white enamel dishes in the creek, while the boys fish for tadpoles with handmade fishing rods built of sticks and small bits of string.

“There are many students who were forced to abandon their studies,” Madsona says.

Having never been in a similar situation., many people at Nyori express a sense of confusion about what they should expect.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been a refugee. I’d like to know what is expected of us, and what rights we have with the UN and with the Sudanese government,” says Emmanual Tamaro Tembe, a young man with short-cropped hair and a pink-and-white striped shirt.

Many of the refugees wonder if anyone in their country is paying attention to their situation, and are concerned that the authorities in Kinshasa, more than 1,800 kilometers southwest, have turned a blind eye.

“Does the DRC government even think of us?” asks Nathaniel Dramule, a refugee sitting next to Abarago, their leader.

“How can we communicate our situation to the Congolese government? They’ve said nothing,” the chief adds.

Despite the challenges they face, the villagers of Aba are hopeful for the future, and ideally would like to return home to Congo, should the situation permit. For the moment, however, they feel safer staying in Sudan, and hope to improve their situation where they can.

“Our desire is to improve the quality of our lives here,” says Dramule.

The refugees have been taking concrete steps to develop the camp where they can. The path leading down to the bridge is a steep dirt trail, one that will undoubtedly become treacherous as the rainy season intensifies. A group of men work with hoes and picks, widening the path, and cutting the outline of steps into the loose soil. Nearby, a man in ripped white tank-top hacks at fallen logs with a panga, a machete, each subsequent ‘thwack’ spitting a spray of wood fragments into the air. The logs will be placed into the newly cut gaps, providing a safer path for the stream of mothers with babies strapped to their backs as they move from one side of the camp to the other.

And while the refugees seem resigned to the thought of remaining in Sudan for the near future, their desire to return home is obvious, something pointed out by one of the youngest members of the group. ““If security is guaranteed, we’ll return,” says Tembe. “For the moment though, we’ll stay here.”

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