A young mother starts over in Uganda

A young mother starts over in Uganda

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Ruwani Dharmakirthi

The fish market-turned-landing site at Sebagoro on Uganda’s Lake Albert is no longer full of thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, no longer a makeshift settlement where women build up temporary tents out of the traditional kitenge fabric to protect themselves from the sun. A few people rest in the shade or stand with the few belongings they managed to bring; others are lined up awaiting medical attention, the calm atmosphere a stark difference from what I saw just a few weeks ago on my first visit. The horrifying water and sanitation conditions — where you could once see feces floating in the same water women were washing their clothes and children filling up bottles of water — are no longer blatantly obvious.  

I visited Sebagoro for the first time in early February during the height of the refugee influx across Lake Albert. At that time several thousands of refugees were arriving weekly, and boats were arriving almost every hour. I spoke with many refugees who told me the horrors they faced not only on the other side of the lake but also what they endured in transit: boats capsizing or children falling overboard and drowning due to overcrowding and rough waters. Although the influx has slowed — about 30 people arrived the day of my most recent visit — the stories remain eerily similar. The conflict doesn’t look as if it will end anytime soon and the hope for peace in DRC is wavering. 

One of the refugee women I spoke to this visit was Gloria*. She is 18 years old and fled from her village in Ituri province along with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. In DRC she was a small-scale farmer and her husband a fisherman and avid footballer who played for their village team and competed in inter-village matches. She told me her story while sitting in front of a boat similar to the one she arrived in, one she says was very crowded with people and their belongings, and costs 20,000 Ugandan shillings per person for the journey.  

She says that the conflict hadn’t reached her village yet but was nearing every day – with a nearby village falling victim to the inter-ethnic violence that is spreading across the Ituri Province. She looks down at the ground and says that there have been a lot of mass killings, with perpetrators using machetes to cut people to pieces, houses being burned to the ground, and the stealing of livestock and land. She and her husband made the difficult decision to leave before their village was destroyed, leaving most of their belongings behind. When I asked her if she plans on ever going back she looked past me and said, “DRC will never have peace – if there’s no war today, there’s war tomorrow.” An echo of what I have heard from the countless Congolese refugees.  

Although the hope for peace in DRC is small, the hope for peace is what has kept the will to rebuild a new life alive. Gloria says she’s heard that in Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement she will get the opportunity to restart her life in peace where there are services available to support her like CARE’s Women and Girls Center, a safe space where women can access health services, including support for survivors of gender-based violence, among other things. But most importantly all she really wants now is peace. 

*Name has been changed 

Gloria* is 18 years old and fled from her village in Ituri province in the DRC along with her husband and 2-year-old daughter. They now live in Uganda’s Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. *Name changed. Photo credit: Thomas Markert/CARE