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DRC: Ituri returnees struggle to rebuild lives

BUNIA, 9 July 2008 (IRIN) - Widowed mother-of-five Albertine Madwan is among hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) facing an often difficult homecoming to Ituri, a district in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ravaged by inter-ethnic clashes in recent years.

After three successive programmes to disarm and demobilise the plethora of militia groups active in the district, security in Ituri has greatly improved and humanitarian agencies are now in a “recovery” phase, helping to reconstruct homes, schools and health centres and providing seeds, fertiliser and other inputs to farmers.

For Madwan and others like her, who returned to Ituri from neighbouring South Kivu province earlier this year, there are more immediate needs.

“Since we got back, our biggest enemy has been hunger, since most of us lack the means to support ourselves. We are grateful to the UN and others for helping us return home but we are worried about the availability of food.

“I live alone with my children, as if abandoned. While we construct the houses, we have to carry heavy logs and wood on empty stomachs; this is something we have to bear as we travel long distances to get the wood,” said Madwan, who supports her family by selling home-brewed liquor.

Livelihood programmes

Madwan is one of many beneficiaries of a UN reintegration programme implemented by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which helps returning IDPs rebuild their homes, as well as their lives, by supporting income-generating activities such as carpentry, sewing and petty commerce.

"We talk to the community to identify widows, orphans and other vulnerable groups, and then we send our staff to the area to assess the situation before starting the reconstruction activities," ADRA project coordinator Deo Basho told IRIN.

Basho explained that it channelled its income-generating assistance to groups of 10 people comprising both returnees and those who never left Ituri.

“Reconciliation is an issue that ADRA is involved in; we undertake activities aimed at reconciling various communities because lasting peace can only be achieved if the communities agree to live in harmony,” Basho said. “In Ituri, we are now in the post-conflict phase and we are trying to undertake activities that will enhance the peace.”

Between 1999 and 2003, longstanding tensions over land, resources and politics in Ituri erupted into a complex inter-communal war that killed some 50,000 people and led thousands more to flee their homes.

But now, according to some analysts, the return of the IDPs poses its own dangers.

Land pressures

“In many cases their land was occupied after they left and their return risks provoking new unrest,” according to a report on Ituri released in May by the International Crisis Group.

“Many displaced people set up home on land vacated by refugees or displaced people from other communities who might later want to recover [it],” the report added, noting that such issues were causing tension in all the five territories that make up Ituri, and in some cases leading to open resistance to the return of IDPs.

The report also noted that these returns were swelling population densities in some areas, leading to “a scarcity of resources available for agriculture and pasture”.

Under a tripartite agreement signed in June 2008 by the governments of DRC, Uganda and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some 70,000 DRC refugees, many of them from Ituri, are to be helped to return home in a repatriation programme starting in July 2009.

Health concerns

According to Idrissa Conteh, information officer for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bunia, Ituri’s main town, physical access is another problem.

“Bridges were destroyed during fighting, some roads are impassable, and this affects the delivery of humanitarian aid, especially to remote parts of the district," he said.

High among the health-related concerns in Ituri, said Conteh, were cholera, meningitis and bubonic plague. "There are several villages along the shores of Lake Albert that are cholera-endemic zones and these remain a challenge."

Conteh said cases of plague had been recorded in the territories of Djugu, Mahagi and Irumu.

"The disease was most recently reported in Fataki area, not very far from Bunia, where 74 were infected and three died," he said. "However, efforts have been made to bring the disease under control with the Ministry of Health, WHO [World Health Organization], MSF [Médecins Sans Frontières] and others deploying medical teams to the affected areas."

Another challenge is natural disasters – drought, flooding or hailstorms - which cause considerable damage to the region’s agriculture and thus affect food security.

For OCHA, Conteh said, an issue that remains of concern is the fear that after the presidential and parliamentary elections two years ago, the international community’s attention would shift and hence the ongoing, enormous humanitarian challenges in Ituri would be forgotten.

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Theme(s): (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs

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Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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