We left our hotel in Fort Portal in western Uganda for an hour and a half drive along a mountain path to Bundibugyo, near the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The drive took us through low mountains that we could make out through mist slowly transforming into rain. It was pouring by the time we stopped by the UNHCR refugee transit center to pick up UNHCR staff. The entry way had turned to mud, immobilizing water transport trucks.
Assistant Secretary Anne C. Richard had sent me to refugee sites in Kenya and Uganda to see the situation firsthand, accompanied by Larry Bartlett, the director for our Refugee Admissions program. I was impressed by what I saw. UNHCR, Ugandan officials, the Ugandan Red Cross Society, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have worked miracles in stablizing an urgent situation in a short time
Around July 10-11, at the beginning of Ramadan, Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) forces attacked the town and then retreated. Some 65,000 Congolese then fled over the border. Security officials said that most who had crossed would wait until the end of Ramadan to decide whether to return. Others, mostly men, continued to move back and forth across the border to tend their crops.
We continued to the border, where we received a briefing from security officials. DRC troops were in the nearest town 11 kilometers on the other side of the border. The rebel forces were several kilometers further west.
Our convoy proceeded north on a dirt track to a small village, within a stone's throw of the border, with 4,000 Ugandans residents and 9,000 refugees. We walked around a field; group of approximately 1,000 refugees, mostly women and children, gathered to look at us. We learned that they were either sleeping outside or in Ugandan houses. We went to a local primary school that had been damaged when refugees used it for shelter during the first days after arrival. The refugees had been moved out, the school repaired, and damaged desks replaced by UNICEF. Ugandan medical officials were immunizing refugees.
We returned to the transit center, where the rain had lessened; by the time we left a few hours later water trucks were able to enter. The muddy camp was filled with a sea of tents. Areas filled by the first refugees were covered with a seemingly haphazard arrangement of different sized tents; later arrivals were housed in newly built communal tents laid out in well organized lines.
Bundibugyo was set up to process refugees at initial arrival; UNHCR was preparing to move refugees from the transit center to a more permanent settlement, as well as to transfer more refugees from the border to the center. As on the border, most refugees in the center were women or children.
The humanitarian agencies helping these refugees face many challenges, including maintaining supplies. The rainy season has just begun and there will be more mud. But, working with partners, we are committed to doing what we can to help those seeking safety and support across the border.