The sounds of shuffling feet and the occasional wheelbarrow fill the air on the road to Goma, with hundreds of civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo fleeing new fighting between rebels and the Congolese army.
Many of them carry all they own on their backs as they pass government troops, and eventually United Nations troops and tanks along the way.
One boy said all he wants is to reunite with his family.
“We started hearing gun shots, so my mother told me to carry these belongings and escape to Goma,” he said. “I have been walking since morning. I left my siblings behind; they told me to wait for them ahead at the roadblock.”
Another man, who refused to give his name, said there is no choice but to run.
“They attacked yesterday before noon. Then they blocked this road at Kalengera. So we were obliged to flee this way,” he said.
The rebels took Rutshuru without a fight Sunday, and seized other areas late last week after heavy fighting with Congolese government troops. M23 leaders have called on the government to honor a peace agreement that ended another uprising in 2008 and 2009.
A statement from the North Kivu Civil Society said residents’ fears have also been heightened by the evacuation of U.N. and independent aid agencies.
The spike in refugees also has been felt along the border with Uganda. The International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday more than 16,500 refugees have fled into the country through the Bunagana, Katwe and Bukazi border posts
The ICRC’s Wangari Kiluve has been working at the Nyekabande refugee camp in western Uganda. She told VOA that by the end of the day Tuesday, the camp itself had about 14,500 refugees.
“The conditions, the weather conditions here are rather cold and of course when they arrive they need some sort of shelter or protection,” she said. “Because there are large numbers of people who have come in suddenly, sanitation and hygiene concerns are there. We haven’t noticed any disease outbreak yet and we are thankful for that and we hope that sanitation and hygiene will be maintained.”
Kazungu David Apollo, the Ugandan commissioner for refugees in the office of the prime minister, told VOA that for now there is enough food, water and blankets to meet the demand, although he is not sure how long that will last.
“Previously we were receiving between 100-150 refugees a day but suddenly we have drastically increase in the numbers of refugees,” he said. “This puts pressure on the health services and the infrastructure in southern district in the Nyekabande transit camp.”
Apollo said Uganda was prepared to handle as many as 30,000 refugees, but that the government had already settled more than 13,000 since last November, and that the recent spike could soon make additional international assistance a necessity. He said security also has been stepped up, after some soldiers came across the border this past Saturday.
For now, the ICRC’s Wangari Kiluve is optimistic. She said that despite the fears and the cold weather, many refugees seem to be finding at least some temporary relief.
And Kiluve said many are even having success reconnecting with loved ones who got separated or were left behind.
“Every day families are able to contact their families wherever they are on telephone so it’s something that we’re working hard to improve and so far its working very well,” she said.
An ICRC release said nearly 500 people have been able to use a dedicated phone service to reach family still in the DRC, while 90 minors have been reunited with their families.
Still, the dangers across the border persist.
The U.N. special representative in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Roger Meece, warned Tuesday it is clear M23 rebel forces are much stronger than anyone thought a few weeks ago, their strength heightened by possible support from the outside.
“The M23 forces appear to be very well equipped, well provisioned with significant arms,” Meece said. “We’ve already seen reports of support coming from outside the country — notably Rwanda. It’s very important that all external support stop immediately.”
If not, officials in Uganda know the result will likely be another spike in refugees, increasing the pressure on resources and resolve.VOA