Trócaire and its Caritas partners are supporting South Sudanese refugees who have fled into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to escape persecution and hunger in their conflict-torn, drought hit country. Nelly Maonde, Trócaire Humanitarian Programme Advisor, reports on a recent visit to Biringi refugee camp in Ituri province, north east DRC.
While travelling to Biringi refugee camp in Aru, Ituri province, I passed through an extremely challenging environment. The roads there were rough, muddy and difficult to negotiate with supply trucks. But the Caritas and Trócaire teams on the ground were undeterred in bringing support to those who needed it at the camp.
When I arrived, I was greeted warmly by a sizable number of refugees, as well as representatives from the DRC Government’s National Center for Refugees (CNR).
The camp is currently home to an estimated 3,200 South Sudanese refugees. For many this is their third time to seek refuge here in recent years.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) runs the camp. In January this year they appealed to Trócaire and Caritas Mahagi for assistance as the situation in South Sudan worsened, and the number of people seeking refuge in DRC rose.
At the camp, our focus is on protection and the provision of support for those who have experienced sexual gender based violence (SGBV). This includes looking at the protection and safety of individuals moving to and from farming fields, and developing risk mitigation plans.
In parallel, medical staff in Biringi Hospital who treat survivors of SGBV are trained on survivor-centered principles of safety and ethics, confidentiality, non-discrimination and respect, clinical management of rape (CMR), clinical care of child survivors and psychosocial responses to SGBV survivors.
We are also providing basics like water and sanitation, food packs (oil, salt, maize flour, beans) and non-food items including ‘dignity kits’ for women. These kits include sanitary materials and underwear.
Additionally, we are providing emergency livelihoods assistance with tools and seeds, and distributing energy efficient stoves which can help reduce instances of sexual violence against women and girls by reducing the time they have to spend searching for firewood away from homesteads.
Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in natural resources, yet the majority of its citizens continue to live with extreme poverty. The country’s basic infrastructure is in an appalling state.
DRC currently ranks 176 out of 188 countries for both the Human Development and Gender Inequality Index.
It is also itself battling outbreaks of internal conflict and resulting humanitarian crises.
Some are calling the situation of South Sudanese refugees fleeing to DRC a case of “jumping from a frying pan into the fire”.
But what can one do when faced with such a situation?
For now, many refugees say they can only take it one day at a time. They are just happy to have made it to the camp and for the help they are now receiving.
For most of the refugees, a roof over their head, basic necessities, and their children being able to play safely on the 400 square meter plot of land that each family is given for setting up a homestead, is all that counts for now.
The refugees I spoke to expressed gratitude for the support they are receiving and appreciate in particular Caritas Mahagi’s equitable approach to aid distribution.
I spoke to a woman called Grace who lives at the camp with her five children (four are pictured below).
Grace is trying to live as normal a life as she can, despite not knowing the fate of her husband in South Sudan.
When the conflict started, her husband was in the capital city, Juba, and she had to flee with their four children to Biringi while she was heavily pregnant.
She had to walk many treacherous kilometres with her young children who are aged between two and nine years old.
When I spoke to a few women selling products at a local market in the camp, there was a happy atmosphere. However, they later told me about their traumatic experiences, with some arriving naked to Biringi as their clothes were stolen on the way.
Biringi refugee camp gives one a sense of community.
Unlike traditional camp set ups, DRC has the advantage of a vast area of available land and so refugees are allocated 400 square metre plots for their homesteads, as well as farming land issued by traditional leaders.
The long term presence of Caritas in local communities has facilitated open communication with the host communities to welcome the refugees and integrate them into the community, a model that is working very well in Biringi.
Refugees are still arriving, sometimes in their hundreds.
At time of writing, Trócaire is supporting 2,900 refugees in the camp, working with Caritas Mahagi, SOFEPADI and with support from Caritas Swiss.
We are also supporting South Sudanese people who are taking refuge in Uganda, as well as those who have been displaced within the country itself.