Where Is SOS Clinton as Uncertainty Looms for Refugees and Displaced Populations in Central Africa?

Recent village burning DRC Credit HRW

Recent village burning DRC Credit HRW

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) said in a press release early this week that it has “strongly advised” some 2,300 Congolese refugees in Gihinga camp in Mwaro province “not to go ahead with a plan to return to South Kivu Province in eastern the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).”

The refugees, who are from the Uvira region bordering Burundi, have refused to be relocated to a newly established camp in Bwagiriza, east of Burundi, and have decided that they will instead return to DRC, their country of origin. At the beginning of 2009, the Government of Burundi and UNHCR decided that Gihinga camp would be closed and all the refugees transferred to Bwagiriza.

Gihinga camp was officially closed last week. For months, UNHCR and the Burundi authorities had carried out an information campaign to prepare the refugees in Mwaro for the voluntary relocation. However, when the exercise started, only 264 agreed to relocate. Those refusing to relocate said they feared for their safety in Bwagiriza. Once Gihinga closes, the refugees will only be able receive assistance in Bwagiriza. So far, 2,300 have refused to move.
Francesca Fontanini, UNHCR regional spokesperson, clarified the situation in an email exchange earlier today.

Those refusing to relocate said they feared for their safety in Bwagiriza because of its proximity with the Tanzanian border where there are rival ethnic Bembe Congolese refugees. Despite UNHCR assurances that the camp was at a safe distance of 60 km from that border, they said they preferred to return to South Kivu and informed local Burundian authorities of their planned departure date of Monday 05 October.

UNHCR fears that any unorganized, large, movement of the Banyamulenge group to South Kivu at this time would put them at security risk. In the region, several revenge attacks on civilians of the same ethnicity — or fear thereof — have forced many of them into exile since June 2004, including those intending to return today from Burundi. The Gatumba massacre of August 2004 was one such attack, though it extended beyond the DRC borders. In the incident, armed men assaulted what was then a temporary camp for Congolese refugees in Burundi, setting huts ablaze and killing at least 160 people, mostly women and children, and wounding another 100.

The LA Progressive examined the Gatumba Massacre, and if it is memory of what happened in August of 2004 which is stopping the displaced from following relocation orders, it is no wonder that they have elected to return to the uncertainty of war in eastern DRC. With the demolition of Gihingi, they have little choice.

The future for these dispossessed is grim, considering that OXFAM, the International Rescue Committee, and Human Rights Watch maintain that the “joint-peacekeeping” operation between Rwanda and Congolese government soldiers (FARDC), led by war criminal Bosco Ntaganda, has been a dismal failure, creating a humanitarian crisis of another 250,000 displaced since January 2009. The victims were at Gatumba were mostly Banyamulenge, a group often categorized with Tutsi, and who remain at the center of the political discourse in DRC.

Emails from Rwanda tell us that this important story is not being played out in local media, while correspondence from DRC says that “voluntary” relocation of internally displaced persons from camps near Goma in DRC is looking to be more and more of a “political ploy” by the Kabila government to appease international concerns.
On September 28, the Enough Project www.enoughproject.org reported:

The human cost of Operation Kimia II-the ongoing joint offensive by the Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers against Rwandan rebels in eastern Congo-outweighs its benefits. Although Kimia II has led to gains in the fight against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR, by forcing the rebels to abandon a number of the lucrative mining areas that help sustain their insurgency, efforts to protect civilians during this offensive have been woefully inadequate. Since military operations against the FDLR began in January 2009, 800,000 people have fled their homes-the highest number of newly displaced in any African conflict.

The larger question in all of this is where is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made a courageous stand for human rights in Congo during her August visit to Africa? Has she been sidelined by President Obama because of her increase in popularity after the visit, while his numbers were plummeting at home?

Additionally, the State Department said quietly last week that the United States will soon be pumping millions into a new Embassy in Burundi. The DOS Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) and the Bureau of Administration announced the award of a $109 million contract to build a New Embassy Compound (NEC) in Bujumbura, Burundi.

The NEC in Bujumbura, Burundi, will be constructed by Caddell Construction, Inc. of Montgomery, Alabama.
The project consists of a chancery building, a support annex/warehouse, a Marine security guard quarters, recreation facilities, three compound access control facilities and “related site development.”

Something is afoot in central Africa and we are dropping the ball. On a visit to the region in 2007, a deep source at the UN told me that his/her expectation was that violence and genocide could erupt again and that the epicenter would be Burundi.

georgiianneGiven the current humanitarian mess in the region, an unholy “alliance” between Rwanda and DRC, the failure of Kimia II, and political fumbling, the source appears to be prescient. Let’s hope the source was wrong.

Here is hoping that SOS Clinton regains her bully pulpit for the region.

Georgianne Nienaber

Republished with author’s permission from Huffington Post.


  1. MD says

    The long timeframe for scheduling a New Embassy Compound pretty well assures that the NEC in Burundi has nothing to do with Clinton or any recent interest in the region. This was decided several years ago. Those in charge may have forseen growth at the embassy and seen the obvious deficiencies and limitations of the current buildings, but it’s not a recent thing.

    The “there is a reason for everything” comment is indicative of over-conspiratorial thinking. Yes, there’s a huge interest in the Great Lakes region, and many more fluid indications that US policy is increasingly focused there. But the NEC is not one of them. Most every embassy will be replaced; again, it’s not supicious or portentious that it’s Burundi’s turn. Neither is speculation about “massive communications capacity” in Rwanda. It may have massive communications capacity (or look like it does, what with all those antennae on top), but so does every US embassy, especially newly-built ones…isolating Kigali to make it look like something unique is a manipulative way to frame a simple fact.

    But in any case, there’s plenty going on in the Great Lakes, new embassies or not, so focus on the construction is really an afterthought anyhow. The discussion is better served by examining policy and action in the region.

  2. Georgianne Nienaber says

    Perhaps red herring perhaps not. The point is Americans’ inattention to these embassies. The fact that SOS Clinton is ramping up AFRICOM in this area makes construction noteworthy, as well as the fact that we recently completed new high tech embassy in Rwanda with a massive communications capability. I have written in support of AFRICOM in the sense that something has to be done for DRC, but as someone who seems knowledgeable of DOS activities, you would have to agree that this region is a strategic flash point for US interests. We could both name many poor countries that need new embassies, but they are not getting them. Burundi? Come on. There is a reason for everything, and this goes far beyond a facelift.

  3. MD says

    The construction of new embassies worldwide is an ongoing project. The fact that Burundi’s turn for a new facility has finally come up is not an indication of anything going on in Africa or not; it’s an internal State Department process.

    Moreover, Burundi’s current facilities are substandard and lack a number of federally-mandated capabilities and features. Add to that a growing number of staff for a country which has just finished a war and is going to be looking to the world for development assistance.

    A new embassy is not the signal for anything other than business as ususal. Not to say there’s nothing going on in the region that warrants attention, but to look at the construction and call it indicative of something is a massive red herring.

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