‘You hear bullets, you run’: Congolese refugees stream over Uganda’s border

The rain will determine what time Uwimana Nsengiyuava gets on the truck to Nyakabande transit centre, where Uganda is hosting 20,000 refugees who, like her, have fled fresh fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Since March, up to 500 refugees a day have been silently streaming into the east African country via Kisoro, a picturesque district in south-west Uganda dotted with endless hills, streams and a lake.

Uganda is home to 1.5 million refugees, the most hosted by any African country. An open-door policy allows refugees to live freely and settle anywhere. Most choose to stay in settlements where they are given land to farm by the government. New arrivals, such as those coming in from DRC, live in holding centres. Here they wait to see if the situation in their countries is improving, and they can return home. Or if they must start a new life in a new country.

Nsengiyuava leans on the metal pole that marks the Uganda-DRC border in Bunagana, 12 miles (20km) from her destination at Nyakabande. If the clouds send rain, it will drive four of her children from wherever they are playing, and she will get on the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) truck early. If the rain holds off, the children will enjoy their games until the evening.

Only the darkness will bring them back to their mother. She waits, rocking their baby brother on her back, and hopes that her older children will appear.

“This is how they were, even in DRC. They would go and play and return in the evening to find I already went to the garden, got food and prepared it,” Nsengiyuava says with a slight laugh.

Her children’s play is the only thing that remains constant for her. She walked throughout the night, reaching the Ugandan border after dawn. She left behind her husband and grandmother. She left behind her treasured saucepans, some only bought recently. She could not even pick out clothes for herself and the children.

“When you hear bullets, you run and try to save your life. You take what you can and leave behind everything else,” she says.

The journey to safety is hard and unfamiliar. People often travel long distances on an empty stomach – pelted by the rain, scorched by the sun and sleeping under trees when night falls.

“They reach the border tired and hungry,” says Emily Doe, the area representative for the World Food Programme (WFP).

Last year, the WFP gave $44m ($35m) in cash and nearly 80,000 tonnes of food to refugees. This is only a fraction of what refugees need to survive. Even with the generous support of donors such as the EU, US and China, the WFP is unable to provide full food rations to refugees. The refugees most in need receive a 70% ration while the relatively less vulnerable receive a 40% ration. All new arrivals, including those in Nyakabande, receive full food assistance for a month.

“The fire never goes off. In Nyakabande, the WFP runs five kitchens 24 hours a day, providing lunch, breakfast and supper,” Doe says. “But we do not know how long this will go on – we are stretched. We need more funding, more donors, to support Uganda’s refugee response.”

The hot food is still some way off for Nsengiyuava and her family. At the transit centre, the WFP will give them special high-energy biscuits to revive them. Medical teams will screen them for malnutrition and give them nutritious food if they need it. The Ugandan government will work with the UNHCR to register and provide them with shelter.

“I cannot wait to reach Nyakabande. I have heard that there is everything I need to survive there. I do not need much – if I find food and a bed, I will be happy,” Nsengiyuava says.

The rains start to fall and her children reappear just in time to get on the UNHCR truck. The elderly and sick people get in first. Then Nsengiyuava and other women with children. Some of the children are unaccompanied, jumping in silently or hanging on to the skirts of kind strangers. Able-bodied women and men get in last. Many refugees linger around the truck, not quite ready to take the next step.

“Getting on the truck is not an easy decision,” says Adele, who has stayed at the border for a month in the hope that the fighting will stop, and she can return home.

“I know the UN is there to help us,” she says, “but it is hard to let go of hope, get on the truck and admit that it is time to consider a different life.”

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