From DR Congo to Uganda, and back

“Life in Uganda is hard, but life in DR Congo is too dangerous to return. I don’t know what to do.” Like many Congolese refugees in Uganda, Maisha faces an impossible choice.

Long-standing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have caused mass displacement for decades – and the violence is intensifying. With 6.9 million people forced to flee their homes in search of safety, it continues to be one of the largest displacement crises in the world.

Civilians are driven to flee time and again as fighting rages in the eastern provinces. Each time people move, they become more vulnerable. Large numbers have fled into neighbouring Uganda, which, as of April 2024, hosts about 1.62 million refugees and asylum seekers from DR Congo and elsewhere.

Once in Uganda, Congolese people escaping violence are granted refugee status. They are processed in transit centres and then moved to village-like settlements where they receive land and some money.

Even so, only a few are considering returning to DR Congo.

How are individuals coping?


Maisha, refugee from DR Congo

Photo: Sarah Casteran/NRC

Maisha, 26, comes from North Kivu province, in the east of DR Congo. “I used to live with my husband, children and parents. I sold some clothes to help provide for our family, but the [armed men] took everything from us,” she says. Displaced several times within her country due to violent attacks, Maisha and her family finally had no choice but to flee to Uganda.

During the difficult journey on foot, the family got separated, and Maisha arrived in Uganda alone. “When I arrived here, I heard that my husband had been kidnapped and killed. My parents and children should be together, but I don’t know where they are,” she says.

“I arrived in Uganda after three weeks of walking,” she recalls. “At the transit centre in Nyakabande, we had to sleep on the concrete floor without any blankets. We had no change of clothes and nothing warm to protect us from the cold. The food was not good, and we didn’t even have soap to wash the clothes we were wearing.”

While people are supposed to stay in transit centres for just a couple of days before being transferred to refugee settlements, Maisha stayed in the Nyakabande centre for a whole month. She was finally transferred to the Juru settlement in August 2023.

I don’t know if I will receive food again. We know that the assistance can stop at any time.

“When I arrived at the settlement, I was given a very small piece of land that is infertile and can’t be used for cultivation,” she says.

“Last week I received some food – 2kg of beans and 6kg of posho [cornmeal] with a small bottle of cooking oil. But I’ve already finished it. My neighbours struggled to find food and I had to share my portion with them. I don’t know if I will receive food again. We know that the assistance can stop at any time.”

Under the new prioritisation scheme implemented by the World Food Programme, new arrivals to the settlement receive the full amount of food and cash assistance for three months. Then, the amount drops to half. After six months, refugees receive assistance according to their level of vulnerability.

When the assistance stopped, Maisha tried to find another way to make some money and buy food for herself. “I’ve been into the local community twice already to look for work, but people chased me away. I also heard that some women were getting attacked and raped in the local community, and so I stopped going,” she says.

“Life in Uganda is hard, but life in DR Congo is too dangerous to return. I don’t know what to do.”


Sifa, refugee from DR Congo

Photo: Sarah Casteran/NRC

Sifa Furaha, 35, also comes from North Kivu province, where she lived with her husband and six children. She used to run her own business making and selling soap. But five years ago, the family had to leave everything behind because of the war.

Sifa and her family first found themselves in a camp for internally displaced people in the city of Goma. Sifa and her husband tried to start a new soap business in Goma, but soon realised it was too difficult without the required capital. When fighting reached their camp, they finally decided to leave and head towards safety.  

The family of eight left Goma on foot. “The journey was very hard,” says Sifa. “We met some soldiers on the way who beat up my daughter severely and she lost an eye. My husband was attacked as well.”

I can never think of going back to DR Congo after what I have experienced there.

When the family reached Bunagana, a town on the border with Uganda, several of Sifa’s children were sick or wounded. Luckily, they met a woman who offered them shelter until the children recovered.

“When we crossed the border and arrived in Uganda, a truck from the Red Cross picked us up and brought us to the transit centre,” she recalls.

Sifa and her family arrived in the Nyakabande transit centre in January and are currently waiting to be relocated to one of the refugee settlements in Uganda. “Here there is peace and we are fed, but I want to be relocated to the settlement because I heard people live better there. I want to start making soap again if I can find some capital.”

When asked about the future, Sifa tells us: “I can never think of going back to DR Congo after what I have experienced there.”


Boninconsile, a local of Nyakabande, Uganda

Photo: Sarah Casteran/NRC

Boninconsile, 42, is a mother of eight children and has been living in Nyakabande, in the Kisoro district of Uganda, her whole life. A 30-minute drive from the border with DR Congo, Nyakabande hosts the main transit centre for refugees crossing the border. 

For Boninconsile, having refugees in the community was never a problem. “Refugees are good people. Having them here has brought some good for our community in the past, such as cash transfers and better health services for mothers,” she says.

The competition is too fierce.

However, with dwindling resources for the refugee response and declining food security, tensions have started to arise. Boninconsile’s family rents a small piece of land where she cultivates Irish potatoes – a staple food and main source of income for people in this area. “Refugees come to harvest my crops and then sell them for cheaper than anyone else on the market. The competition is too fierce,” she says.

When her crops get stolen and with nothing to sell on the market, Boninconsile needs to turn to manual work to make some money. “Sometimes I earn very little money, like 5,000 shillings [less than 1.5 USD] and I save it through our community’s savings group. The situation is too difficult, and my husband does not help because he has a drinking problem,” she tells us, holding her 5-month-old baby.


Joséphine, recently returned to DR Congo

Photo: Marion Guenard/NRC

In Ituri, DR Congo, the small town of Bule is hosting a large number of displaced people.

Joséphine moved there in June 2023 with her family. The 25-year-old mother of five has moved many times. She first fled her village in 2018 following an attack by armed groups. At that time, she moved to Bule, a few dozen kilometres away. She stayed there for two months before leaving for Uganda, hoping to escape the conflict and violence for good.

“Life in Uganda was not perfect, but at least we had security,” says the young woman, now back in Bule. “As refugees, we were entitled to humanitarian aid, mainly food and medical care.”

All we can do is wait for the conflict to end.

But Joséphine did not see a future for herself in Uganda, far from her loved ones, her family, and, above all, her fields. Before being displaced, Joséphine and her husband worked as farmers.

On their land, they grew manioc (cassava), beans and maize. They also raised poultry and goats. “It made me sick to think my land had been occupied and the crops had been stolen by the armed groups,” recalls Joséphine.

Back in DR Congo, the family faces an ongoing war and, for the time being, has no choice but to stay in Bule. “We work in the fields daily,” says Joséphine. “The children can't go to school because we don't have the money to pay for school supplies or uniforms. All we can do is wait for the conflict to end and hope to get our land back in the near future.”


Alleviating the burden on refugees and host communities

The refugee response in Uganda suffers from a widening funding gap, and the refugee population continues to grow. Both refugees and local communities are suffering from this lack of funding.

More resources are needed to meet the complex range of immediate humanitarian needs. At the same time, the root causes of the crisis must be tackled by investing in lasting solutions and supporting peacebuilding efforts to strengthen social unity.

The international community must urgently pledge enough funds to the Uganda refugee response to allow aid organisations to provide life-saving assistance. Development donors must significantly increase their support to promote refugee self-reliance. Finally, global financial institutions must explore and commit to innovative forms of support to improve economic conditions in Uganda.

Read more about our work in Uganda and DR Congo.

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