Congolese refugees fear going home but feel unwelcome in South Sudan
Catholic News Service photo
A girl stands among the makeshift pews after a Sept. 30 Mass in the chapel of the Makpandu refugee camp in a remote section of South Sudan. More than 3,000 people live in the camp, having fled Congo in 2008 when the Lord's Resistance Army started a murde rous rampage through the area.
Catholic News Service
YAMBIO, South Sudan — As the military hunt for Joseph Kony continues throughout this region, refugees who fled across the border from Congo to escape his Lord's Resistance Army say their welcome in South Sudan is wearing thin.
"I want to go home, but I'm afraid of Kony. As soon as the LRA is gone, I'll go back. It's my country," said Bernadet Adesa, 35, who lives in the Makpandu refugee camp near the border.
"This has been a good place for us, but every day there are more and more problems between us and the South Sudanese. If anything bad happens here, we Congolese get blamed for it," she said.
A Catholic priest who lives in the camp said the refugees are caught between being harassed inside South Sudan or returning to the Congo where the LRA, although weakened, still rampages through the forest, robbing, abducting and killing.
"The Congolese no longer feel welcome here. They live on land that's not theirs, and their freedom to work and make money has been curtailed," Italian Comboni Father Mario Benedetti told Catholic News Service.
After 38 years as a missionary in Congo, Father Benedetti accompanied the refugees to South Sudan in 2008. Today his parish is the refugee camp -- a ramshackle collection of mud huts 25 miles from Yambio.
Father Benedetti suggests tough economic times are at the root of the tension. South Sudan has been in a crisis since January, when the government in Juba cut off the oil it pumps through pipelines that run through neighboring Sudan. A Sept. 27 agreement between the two governments will restart the oil flow, but it will take months for the situation to improve.
"The Congolese are harder workers than the South Sudanese. They're better businesspeople. They can make enough money to buy a motorcycle, and the South Sudanese can't, so they get jealous of the refugees," the priest said.
Authorities have closed a market the refugees opened in the middle of their camp, forcing them to cross the road to buy basic supplies in a Sudanese market. Father Benedetti said the police had prohibited the Congolese from selling bags of charcoal along the road.
"The South Sudanese who live nearby weren't happy because of the competition. So now the refugees can only sell charcoal from their huts, but who's going to stop their car on the road and walk into the camp?" he asked.
Father Benedetti said a local radio station in Yambio is constantly insulting the Congolese and blaming them for every problem, a role he compared to Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda during that country's genocide.
"They're trying to discourage and frighten us, so we'll go back home. But it's not safe there yet. And here the Congolese have health care and schools, services they'd have to pay for back in the Congo," he said.
The bishop of the border area, who was a refugee in Congo and the Central African Republic, said he has spoken with local political officials about the harassment.
"Some of the local political leaders at times fail to respect the rights of the refugees, who are supposed to be protected and not harassed," Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio told Catholic News Service. "The host nation has the obligation to care for these people. But there's little knowledge of this, despite the fact that many of us were once refugees in their country."
The bishop said some refugees have felt forced by the harassment to return to Congo, which was not a safe option.
Security in the immediate area of the border has improved in the last year, in part because of the arrival of U.S. troops dispatched to help area armies combat the LRA. Yet Father Benedetti said he is disappointed in the results.
The U.S. soldiers "say they're here to observe and train other soldiers. But so far we don't know what they're doing," he said. "Yet just as they found Bin Laden, why can't they find Kony? It's an international shame."
Italian Comboni Sister Giovanna Calabria works in the nearby town of Nzara, where some of the U.S. troops are based as part of a joint operation with a special contingent of Ugandan troops.
"People here were happy when they (Americans) came. But no one is sure what they're doing now. I have the impression that their wings are cut. I don't hear that from them, as they keep their mouths closed. But I hear it from others," she said.
Bishop Kussala said that while stepped-up military patrols have recently kept Kony's forces at bay, the area is not truly at peace.
"As long as he's still in the forest, it's a negative peace. There may not be shooting, but the enemy hasn't been arrested and removed," he said.
Bishop Kussala said the church faces a variety of challenges in helping people move back home to rural settlements they abandoned when the LRA roamed the area. He also expressed concern for what might happen with community-based militias, widely known as the "Arrow Boys," which formed to defend isolated communities from LRA violence.
"If the LRA isn't there anymore, they'll find someone to replace the LRA, because they're accustomed to having weapons and moving around. So we're starting a rehabilitation program for these young men, but we need support," he said.
The bishop said that while he supported the military campaign to capture Kony, he was also pushing a diplomatic approach.
"They've employed a military approach to Kony here since 2007, and they still haven't captured him. So we just sent three priests to the Congo to talk about organizing a regional conference to see how the church could deal with this," Bishop Kussala said.
Sister Calabria said she doubts that diplomacy, religious or otherwise, will work.
"There is only one way to stop Kony," she said. "I don't want to kill him. If he is killed, it's his fault because he doesn't surrender.
She said Kony was "not a normal person, and he's forced many other people to not be normal anymore.
"Probably I'm not a good Christian, but it's time to stop him," she added.