Acting as a friend to a neighbour that is no stranger to conflict

Just beyond the hills on the western horizon lies the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a little under 50km away from the Volunteer Uganda lodge but the fires that can be seen, as farmers scorch the land to encourage grass growth, make it feel much closer.

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The connection that Kanungu district has with the DRC goes well beyond the glowing embers that illuminate the night sky. In September last year, the Ugandan government and the UNHCR set up a refugee camp at Matanda to deal with the influx of people displaced by the conflict that has raged in the east of the DRC since the end of 2011 – although you wouldn’t know it from the limited coverage it receives in ‘western’ press outlets.

The DRC is no stranger to conflict. It is undoubtably one of the most unstable countries in Africa, in the world, and has suffered numerous rounds of violence since the Belgians rushed to give the DRC independence in 1960 and a hidden rage exploded .

The most recent troubles began when the M23 rebels, named for the peace accord signed on 23 March 2009 in which the Congolese government agreed to integrate former militia into the armed forces, accused the Government in Kinshasa of violating promises that were made during the talks.

The impact of the violence that followed was stark.

Only 5 days after opening, over 3000 refugees had registered at Matanda, joining the 160,000 others who had already travelled over the border to Uganda, precious possessions and even more precious children in tow.

The strain to cope with such a mass exodus from the DRC was clear. Ugandan Minster for refugees Musa Ecweru is reported as saying: “the challenge is high; we are trying all our best to contain the situation. However, we are overstretched.”

But things are improving at Matanda. As I passed the camp on Friday, the sea of white tents that once crested like waves as far as the eye could see has been replaced by a far smaller camp which reflects the slow trickle of people who are crossing the border back to the DRC.

A new peace accord, which was signed last week, has given rise to some hope that the worst of the conflict is over and people feel it is safe enough to return home.

But hope has given way to despair before in the DRC and many are keeping a watchful eye on the border and keeping the tents at the ready for a return of the refugees, and of the violence that has plagued the Congo for decades.

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