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DRC refugees

John Kunyunu and Philipp Sandner / shSeptember 12, 2013

In conflict regions in the DRC schools often serve as emergency accommodation for refugees, many of whom have left their traditional jungle homes. This can lead to problems with local residents.

A group of pygmies in a jungle in the DRC Photo: ©Kate Eshelby/Survival
Image: Kate Eshelby/Survival

It is early September and school should be resuming after the summer break. But tempers are running high in the town of Oicha in eastern DRC, some 70 kilometers (44 miles) from the border with Uganda. Around 60 refugees have found shelter in a primary school - much to the anger of the pupils. They are furious that classes cannot be held because of the newcomers who have fled from rebels of the Allied Democratic Forces-National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU).

One girl tells journalists from a local radio station that she and her fellow pupils will do all they can to make sure the newcomers leave again as quickly as they came. "We'll make sure these pygmies leave our classrooms," she declares. "Either we'll make a lot of noise or we'll throw stones."

The word 'pygmy' is commonly used to describe an ethnic group in eastern Congo who call themselves 'Bambuti.' They live in small settlements in the jungle of central Africa, living mostly from the animals and plants to be found there. Because of their simple style of living and their small stature, they are frequently the target of mockery and discrimination by other groups. This has been the case for generations, says Ulrich Delius of the Society for Threatened Peoples. And so an atmosphere of hostility is pretty much pre-programed should they find themselves having to live in close proximity to other Congolese, as is the case in Oicha.

Soldiers of the M23 rebel movement hold weapons aboard a vehicle(Photo by Takeshi Kuno) (Kyodo)
M23 rebels say the government failed to honor a previous peace agreementImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Lack of understanding

Delius says many Congolese have no respect for the Bambuti, even though "they are an ethnic community who possess a high level of knowledge in their familar habitat."

"But what can they do when they are forced to leave? They have to start again from zero," Delius said in an interview with DW. That is exactly what is happening now. Forests are cut down, appropriated by mining companies or invaded by rebels. The indigenous population are never consulted.

However in Oicha the refugees do have something to say. They vehemently defend themselves against the complaints from local residents. "We Bambuti are only in the town because of the war," said a representative of the group now living in the school. "But we have nothing to do with the war. Our home is in the forest." The Bambuti say they will leave the school if the authorities provide material for alternative accomodation. They also say they are surprised by the reaction of the people of Oicha.

For Ulrich Delius, it's a situation that pits two groups of victims against one another. He points out that many groups within the population are suffering; they are either treated badly by the authorities or they are the victims of violence perpetrated by either the authorities or by the army or rebel militias. "The stronger group then hits out at the weaker members of society," says Delius. The Bambuti are the weakest link in the chain.

Ulrich Delius
Life has completely changed for the Bambuti, says Ulrich DeliusImage: Privat

Seeking a solution

Experts estimate there are more than 20 different rebel groups active in DRC. Prominent in the headlines has been the M23 group which has occupied territory in North Kivu for more than a year. With their spectacular capture of the provincial capital Goma in November 2012, they forced the DRC government to enter into negotiations. International mediators were also involved but without so far finding a solution. Other militia groups are often forgotten, much to the dismay of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni who would like to be rid of the problem on his border.

When African heads of state met in the Ugandan capital Kampala in early September to seek a solution to the M23 problem, Museveni drew their attention to the rebel group ADF-NALU. For years they have terrorised people on the Congolese side of the border. Many people also sought refuge in Ugandan schools. "These refugees are suffering," Museveni said and called on the international community for support.

In Oicha a Congolese Pygmy aid organisation is now trying to help. With help from the German emergency aid NGO "Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe", it is trying to organise material so that alternative shelters can be built for the refugees.