Note: This op-ed originally appeared in The Daily Beast and was written by The Sentry Co-founder John Prendergast.
KYANGWALI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda—“What I left behind is so precious, so much more important than what I am left with here,” said the 37-year-old Congolese refugee we’ll call Edward. “When I arrived in the refugee camp, I fell to the ground in grief, traumatized by all that I had lost.”
Edward was a businessman who sold clothing before large-scale violence returned to the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over the last several months, well over 400,000 people from Ituri have been driven from their homes, the bulk of them ending up in refugee camps in neighboring Uganda, bereft of everything but the clothes on their backs. They join the 4.8 million people already displaced by Congo’s waves of violence, the second highest total in the world after Syria.
“A year ago we heard rumors that [Congolese President Joseph] Kabila wanted to create violence to delay elections,” Edward told me. “The day before Christmas of this past year, two of my relatives were murdered. Then the killings accelerated. The militias would come and seal off a village, then go house to house with machetes. Very few people escaped. Eventually they would burn the village. At one point, there were so many bodies you could hardly walk.”
Edward said that Congolese soldiers who tried to intervene to protect villagers were themselves “chopped up” by the militias. Edward said he witnessed a woman in a nearby village being pursued by a militia. She ran and physically clung to a nearby policeman, but the militia “pulled her away and chopped her up.” When Edward was told by a Congolese soldier that he and his fellow soldiers were given instructions not to intervene, “My first thought was that Kabila had sold us out. I felt we had to run for our lives. We were so traumatized, we could not fight back. What we have known most of our lives is war.”
So Edward and 20 of his neighbors put their money together to hire a boat to escape. The price of a ride across Lake Albert to Uganda had doubled due to the heavy demand of those wanting to flee, which meant that many spent all the money they had just to get away. “I witnessed one boat with seven people which capsized. They all drowned.”
Nearly every refugee we have met in Uganda laid the responsibility for the violence at the feet of President Kabila and his strategy of chaos which could provide the pretext for an indefinite delay in elections that were originally scheduled for 2016 but have been postponed repeatedly. Constitutionally, Kabila is mandated to hand over power to his elected successor…
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