Marie is standing inside her brand-new house with her baby strapped on her back and her two other children next to her. She is dressed in bright red and blue and smiling broadly as she shows the two small rooms she and her husband have built with wood and clay on the plot of land the government of Uganda allocated her family. When you have to start from scratch, nothing gets lost, everything gets a second life. And so, when it was time to build a door to their house, they used flattened oil cans they received as part of the food assistance package they get from the World Food Programme.
Her family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and arrived two months ago at the Kyaka II settlement in Uganda.
“Since we crossed the border, we’ve been surviving on the food given to us by WFP,” she explains. “My family has been on the run; now if we can get peace, we will have time to start farming, sustain ourselves and get our lives back.”
Her story is not uncommon here and in other refugee settlements in Uganda. Conflict in eastern Congo is flaring up once again, and thousands have come to the conclusion that their only option was to abandon everything and seek refuge away from their homes.
In only the past few weeks, thousands of Congolese have fled to Goma, the capital of North Kivu and elsewhere in the country. Thousands more have crossed the Rwandan and Ugandan borders in search of safety.
At the reception center of the Nakivale settlement, a young woman with her baby in her arms explains that it took her two weeks to reach Kisoro, a Ugandan village close to the DRC border.
“My husband was killed, they came at night and took him away.” She doesn’t know exactly who did it and why they did it. But she says they all had guns. After losing her husband, she felt she had no other choice than to leave her village.
For most, making it to Kisoro means they are safe, they will receive help.
“People arrive in Kisoro with very few possessions,” explains Amos Mwesigye, who is in charge of the WFP sub-office in the region. “The World Food Programme works with its partner on the ground to prepare them hot meals, and then provides food that the refugees can cook themselves once they’re able to.”
Kisoro is not the refugees’ final destination. The Ugandan government wants to avoid creating settlements close to the Congolese border because they fear this could lead to security issues. Instead, after a few days in Kisoro, refugees are dispatched to settlements like Nakivale of Kyaka II that are located further inland.
There’s a reason Nakivale and other settlements are not called camps in Uganda. They are set up in the country side, in areas that are green and quiet. People do not live in tents, but rather in small houses – most of them clay huts – that they build themselves. They form villages where refugees often live among their own communities of origin.
Albert arrived in Nakivale with his family at the end of 2011. He did not feel safe in Bukavu after his parents were killed.
“I try to work here, but I don’t earn a lot of money,” he said. “I need the food that the World Food Programme gives us to feed my family.”
Standing next to him, Gratien Zimy Ntezimisi, who has fled North Kivu, agrees: “Without this food, some people here would die,” he said, emphasizing how difficult it is for people like him who have just arrived to reorganize their lives, find work or grow enough food to feed their families.
People like Gratien, Albert and Marie all receive assistance from the World Food Programme. Once a month, they get maize, peas and oil. The amount of food they receive is determined by the size of their families and their needs. The system means they will continue to receive assistance until they are autonomous again.
Seeing that children and pregnant or breastfeeding mothers receive adequate nutrition is another priority for the World Food Programme. Malnutrition in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life can lead to irreversible damage to their minds and bodies.
Clinics provide free medical services for the refugees, and this is where WFP treats malnutrition. Children and adults who need it receive special fortified food to help them recover.
Uganda has hosted refugees for at least two decades. In 2012, WFP is providing food assistance to over 100,000 refugees living in settlements both in the southwest and in the north of the country.
“We support the work of the Government of Uganda and are committed to helping this population,” said Sory Ouane, WFP’s representative in the country. “Unless the situation in eastern Congo improves, we expect that we will be called upon to support even more refugees in the coming months.”
If conflict continues to grow in eastern DRC, it’s likely to lead to an even wider displacement crisis, forcing more people to abandon their homes and flee, either to other parts of eastern Congo or across the borders into Uganda or Rwanda. The World Food Programme is preparing for this prospect and is working to mobilize resources to be ready to scale-up its operations and continue providing life-saving assistance.