18 Months along the Congo River
28 February 1999
by Daniel Ahmad
Daniel Ahmad served as a UNV Field Officer in northern Congo-Brazzaville, working with Rwandese Hutu refugees from July 1997 to January 1999.
I had just finished a 3-month tour in Bosnia when I received a phonecall from UNV's Humanitarian Relief Unit in Bonn, inquiring whether I could serve UNHCR as a UNV Field Officer in northern Congo-Brazzaville, working with Rwandese Hutu refugees.
As I was on the phone I looked across at the map on my wall and said "They are THERE?....How did the Rwandese refugees make it over to Congo-Brazzaville?". They walked more than 1500 kilometres - almost halfway across the continent in less than 8 months. This little-known migration of thousands of persons in such a short span of time across the African continent is both fascinating and historic.
I said yes to the offer and this has been the best and most rewarding experiences of my career.
Some 14.000 Rwandese refugees, originating from the Kivu region of ex-Zaire arrived in northern Congo-Brazzaville in May 1997, fleeing the civil war that ousted then-president Mobuto Sese-Seko. Mostly young men, many arrived malnourished in a very inhospitable, nearly swampy environment on a handful sites along the Congo River.
Within one month a civil war also broke out in Congo-Brazzaville (officially known as Republic of Congo) and this made the mission more difficult. We fortunately were provided with a Field Staff Safety Advisor to ensure we could carry out our work in security.
These refugee camps, being in very remote, sparsely populated areas, required intensive logistical support. Only one of the sites, Loukolela, was accessible by an airstrip. The others we accessed with difficulty by barge and motorboat.
During the mission I clocked in hundreds of hours moving in boats along the Congo river serving the refugee population in the two northern sites, Liranga and Ndjoundou.
Having a Rwandese population in a Congolese environment was most interesting, as they come from two very different African cultures. Overnight the Congolese became minorities in their own villages, and their reception of the massive influx of refugees was admirable, as it also coincided with a civil war in their own country.
Sent by Daniel on 28 February 1999