Cablegate: Refugee Update - 88,000 Drc Refugees in the Likouala Region

DE RUEHBZ #0362/01 3571128
O R 231128Z DEC 09




E.O. 12958: N/A


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1. (U) Over the last two months, 87,789 DRC refugees have
crossed the Ubangui River into the Likouala region of the Congo
in order to flee fighting in the Equateur province of DRC. DCM
and RefCoord visited five of the approximately 60 refugee sites
between December 17 and 19. The refugees are spread out over
300 kilometers along the banks of the Ubangui and are mostly
sheltered in make-shift huts in villages close to the edge of
the river, though there are several thousand squatting in
horrible conditions in an abandoned factory and a school in
Betou town. Although the majority of the refugees have until
now managed to survive on food brought from the DRC before and
after the fighting (canoes continue to cross back and forth in
search of food) their coping mechanisms will likely break down
over time. Most of the food in this region comes from the DRC,
where fields have been abandoned due to the fighting.

2. (U) UNHCR and WFP have responded well, providing non-food
items (NFIs) and food from existing stock in the region, but
these resources are now tapped out. Fortunately, UNHCR did not
close its offices from previous rounds of refugees, and had
local partners in place. The logistics of getting additional
food and NFIs to the region are daunting - NFIs will have to be
flown in, and food will have to come overland from Cameroon via
the Central African Republic. Overhead costs will therefore be
substantial. MSF-France and a local NGO supported by UNHCR are
providing much-needed health assistance with both fixed and
mobile medical clinics. American missionary doctors based in
Impfondo treated the wounds and operated on at least a dozen
seriously injured refugees. UNICEF donated water bladders to
several sites, which have been made functional with assistance
from MSF. Though it has not yet granted refugee status, the
GROC has been cooperative and the ROC military has provided
significant security to both refugee communities and UN relief
operations. Although the GDRC military has retaken control of
much of the region in the course of the last week, the refugees
we met told us they would not return to the DRC anytime soon,
because their security cannot be assured. Some were attacked
brutally by their own neighbors from other tribes. It is
difficult to imagine that the refugees will return within the
next few months; six months, a year, or longer is possible
depending on the stability of the Equateur province of the DRC.

Likouala Refugee Situation Overview


3. (U) Embassy Brazzaville Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) and
Kampala-based Regional Refugee Coordinator (RefCoord) undertook
an assessment mission to ROC's Likouala Department which has
received an influx of 87,789 refugees from DRC across the
Ubangui River over the past 2 months. During December 17-19, DCM
and RefCoord traveled with UNHCR to five refugee sites: Impfondo
town at the southern end of the refugee influx zone; Falco and
Mondzombo in Betou town at the northern end of the refugee
influx zone; Mankolo village 30 kilometers north of Impfondo;
and Eboko, one of the largest refugee sites with 9,697 refugees,
located about 50km south of Betou and almost directly across the
river from the DRC town of Dongo, which saw the first and
largest attacks on minority ethnic groups that led to the
refugee outflow.

4. (U) GROC local officials indicated that the number of
refugees outstrips the local population in the district by about
20,000 people. The refugees are dispersed among more than 60
sites along 300km of the Ubangui River, with the largest
concentration of the population in the Betou District (approx.
57,000) at the northern end of this axis. (NOTE: A significant

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portion of the local population is former DRC refugees from a
prior refugee influx who have been locally integrated in ROC and
many of the current refugees and second-time refugees who were
repatriated to DRC during the past several years. END NOTE.)
Brazzaville-based Office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) and World Food Program (WFP)
representatives estimate that the total refugee population will
peak at between 130,000 and 150,000 (including the between
9,000-18,000 refugees currently in CAR who they anticipate will
travel to ROC soon in order to be in closer proximity to their
villages and families) and that the refugee situation will last
a minimum of one year.

5. (U) UNHCR reported that refugees crossed the river in three
waves: the first being those who directly experienced conflict
(Oct. 29), the second being those who fled because of rumors of
fighting (Nov. 28), and the third being those who fled upon the
arrival of FARDC troops in the affected areas of Equateur
Province (within last 1-2 weeks). Those who fled direct
conflict arrived with little-to-none of their household goods or
food stocks and have minimal coping strategies. Many of the
refugees in the second and third waves were able to bring their
household goods, including roofing materials and generators in
some cases, as well as a supply of food for their immediate
needs. Refugees from all groups appear to have found some
access to day labor opportunities (in areas such as fishing)
among the local population in which they receive food for work.

6. (U) Although it has referred to them as refugees, GROC has
not granted refugee status to this group. It has, however, at
UNHCR's request allowed that organization to begin registering
refugees. UNHCR plans to begin registration during the week of
December 21. (NOTE: UNHCR had already sent a Protection Officer
to the area to begin identifying and registering unaccompanied
minors (UAMs) and to begin family tracing. END NOTE.) The
Sous-Prefet of Betou District has also agreed to allow UNHCR to
use a parcel of land behind the Mondzombo School in Betou town
to consolidate the nearly 6,000 refugees currently sheltered in
the school and the abandoned Falco match factory. Despite
better access to services, the refugees at these two locations
are living in difficult conditions on cement floors with little

7. (U) UNHCR and WFP said that logistics is their biggest
challenge in meeting the needs of this population. There is no
viable road between Impfondo and Betou; the river provides the
only transport route. However, the region north of the equator
is entering the dry season in which the wide, shallow Ubangui
River ceases to be navigable by large boats. The small UNHCR
speedboat which transported DCM and RefCoord between Impfondo
and Betou scraped sandbars several times during the 4.5-hour
journey. UNHCR and WFP have a number of transport barges, but
those will soon be unable to make the journey due to the
dropping water level. River transport of goods from Brazzaville
to Impfondo is costly, slow, and has been subject to attack. A
barge carrying WFP-provided food and a 15,000-liter fuel
donation from GROC took 10 days to reach Impfondo and was
attacked by rebels just south of the town, requiring assistance
from the ROC military. UNHCR estimated that transporting 50,000
liters of fuel to Impfondo from Brazzaville requires between
one-quarter and one-third of the fuel being transported to fuel
the journey. The alternate transport route is via Bangui either
by air or overland from Douala and then via road south to Betou.
When the Bangui-Betou road is in good condition, the trip takes
5-6 hours. There is an airstrip at Betou but it needs to be
repaired; WFP Country Representative Alex Loriston said that he
is talking with GROC representatives about this issue.

8. (U) These logistical challenges raise the cost of the
operation and make funding the parallel challenge for UNHCR and
WFP. Using funds from its Operational Reserve, UNHCR has
ordered non-food items (NFIs) for approximately 35,000 people.
(NOTE: This request was based on the refugee population at the
time of the request a month ago; it has since more than
doubled.) These NFIs supplement the NFIs for approximately
12,000 people that UNHCR had in country and has already
distributed to the most vulnerable individuals among the refugee
population. The EU's Kinshasa-based representative confirmed

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that the EU will provide a contribution of two million Euros,
approximately two-thirds to WFP and one-third to UNHCR. UNHCR
has already received a contribution of 300,000 Euro from the
Italian government.

9. (U) When DCM and RefCoord asked refugees to identify their
greatest needs they universally mentioned healthcare first and
then education for their children second. Only one individual
indicated that food was an issue; this individual had received
food for 30 days during a distribution by WFP, but complained
that it was not sufficient for his family. (NOTE: DCM and
RefCoord met with an EU assessment delegation upon return from
Betou to Impfondo and the Kinshasa-based EU representative on
that team indicated that they had found food security to be a
problem among the refugee population to the south of Impfondo.

10. (U) Healthcare is provided by two organizations: Medecins
d'Afriques (MDA) and Medecins Sans Frontieres - France (MSF-F).
MDA is a local NGO that has worked with UNHCR during several
years. MSF-F sent a team via Bangui that had been located in
DRC. The organizations have established health posts in
Monzombo and Falco sites in Betou town. They are serving other
sites along the river via a mobile clinic system using
canoes/barges to ferry medical staff. MDA said that the two
organizations cover each site so that it receives at least 1-2
visits per week and some sites receive visits 4-5 times/week
with MDA and MSF alternating their visits. Refugees and
healthcare workers told us that the healthcare profile of the
refugee population was not out of the ordinary for a refugee
situation with the most common illnesses being malaria,
diarrheal diseases, and respiratory infections.

11. (U) UNHCR has worked with UNICEF (providing water bladders)
and MSF (providing technicians and a water resting tank) to
install a water system in the Eboko site that is capable of
providing potable water at a rate of 50-60 liters/person/day.
They have also identified Landza (2,182), Boyele (4,820), and
Mondzombo (3,500) for installation of additional water bladders.
Because access to water is not the main issue but rather
cleaning the water that is available, UNHCR has focused on
distributing water treatment tablets and on sensitizing the
refugee population (via site-based refugee leaders/committees)
on safe water use.

12. (U) Refugees have found a variety of shelter options. A
number of refugees have taken over wattle-and-daub houses left
when refugees repatriated during the past several years and have
begun rehabilitating/expanding them. Other refugees brought
their roofing materials with them and have constructed shelters
with metal roofs. A third group has used UNHCR-provided
blankets hung over wooden frames to create a shelter. In Betou
town, 2,500 refugees have found space in Falco, an abandoned
match factory, while 3,500 are in the classrooms of Mondzombo, a
recently-finished school constructed by UNHCR. Neither of the
Betou town locations is sufficient for the populations they
house, although per prior note the local Sous-Prefet has
provided land behind Mondzombo for construction of a camp for
this population.

13. (U) A final, difficult aspect of this refugee situation is
that the local population has lost its market from the other
side of the river. Most goods bought by the population on the
ROC side came from DRC and the towns/villages on the DRC side
also formed the largest market for ROC crops/goods. When DCM
and RefCoord traveled from Impfondo to Betou, there were
little-to-no signs of life on the DRC side of the river (apart
from sighting of a few FARDC soldier on the beach at Dongo,
DRC). However, we did see quite a number of canoes crossing the
river - some appeared to be people who had gone back to collect
some of their crops or household goods from the DRC.

Political-Military Dimensions

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14. (SBU) During the visit, FARDC forces in the DRC were
reported to have gained control of Imesse, having regained
control of Dongo in the previous week. The refugees at Eboko
sent a delegation to Dongo on December 18 to meet with the
Governor of Equateur Province, who was flown to Dongo via MONUC
helicopter. The delegation had not yet returned to Eboko with
news of their meeting, but they anticipated that the Governor
would ask them to return to Dongo, but said they would not
return until they could be sure that the fighting between
militia and DRC forces was definitively over. The wounded
refugees at Impfondo have told the American missionary doctors
there of their fear of the militia leader and witch doctor,
General Odjani, whom they ascribe with strong powers (an ability
to levitate, hide underwater, evade bullets, and give magical
powers through his sword to those of his followers). UNHCR
officers also reported that Odjani is greatly feared in the
region, and reportedly is descended from an Enyele tribal leader
who led battles against the other ethnic groups in the region,
including the Mundzala, during the 1940s. (Note: This
information is hearsay and should be confirmed; we pass it along
merely to provide a sense of what the DRC refugees in the
Likouala are saying. End note.)

15. (SBU) The ROC military appears to have been extremely
responsive to the refugee crisis and to security requests from
UNHCR and WFP. The ROC military provides an armed escort to all
UNHCR and WFP boats; a dozen Roc military reportedly fought back
DRC militia on December 18 south of Impfondo, who attempted to
take control of a WFP food barge with motorized canoes in order
to steal fuel and food. The ROC has stationed an MI-24 attack
helicopter at Impfondo in order to conduct aerial patrols of the
river and scare off the militia. (Note: The helicopter appeared
to have a European pilot. End note.) The ROC military has also
positioned a zodiac at Impfondo and has used the boat to patrol
the river, while also placing one military officer at each
refugee site to protect the refugees from militia (DCM and
Refcoord saw the officers at each site we visited).

16. (SBU) The GROC has not granted refugee status officially,
but the MFA informed UNHCR on December 18 that it would not
oppose UNHCR's use of the term, which will allow UNHCR to make
an appeal to donors. The MFA also told UNHCR that it should
begin registering refugees, and would "reply soon" on the issue
of status. MFA Secretary General Daniel Owassa has told Embassy
officers on several occasions that the GROC wants to better
understand the situation and what the GDRC is doing about it -
in order to understand how long this crisis may last - before it
grants refugee status. The GROC Minister of Social Affairs
Emilienne Raoul has chaired a crisis committee that includes UN,
NGO, and diplomatic representatives. The GROC also contributed
15,000 liters of fuel to the WFP barge that arrived in Impfondo
on December 19 with 300 tons of food. UNHCR reported that the
Prefect in Impfondo as well as the sub-prefect in Betou have
been helpful and cooperative with every request, including the
provision of land for the much-needed refugee camp in Betou.



17. (U) The in-country UNHCR and WFP staff and their local
partners have done champion's work to provide the assistance
that they have to date with very limited resources. UNHCR was
able to quickly mobilize resources because it still had limited
staff, logistical resources, and local partners in place
following the last refugee influx from the DRC in 2002. The
current refugee influx does not appear to have reached an
emergency stage; however, the refugees' coping strategies are
being rapidly taxed as are the resources of the local
population. Given the logistical challenges inherent in
providing food, non-food items (NFIs), healthcare, water, and
other services, assistance will need to be placed in the
pipeline quickly so that this does not develop into an
emergency. While UNHCR plans to fly all NFIs into Impfondo, WFP

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will likely need to send food by truck overland from Douala,
Cameroon via Bangui, CAR to Betou, ROC.

18. (SBU) UNHCR staff has identified reconciliation as key to
allowing refugees to return home. They compared the events on
the DRC-side of the border to a Rwanda-like situation where
people who had been good neighbors for 20 years suddenly took up
arms against their neighbors from minority ethnic groups. It
will greatly enhance the chance of a durable solution when the
time comes for refugee return if the process of reconciliation
and conflict resolution is a key element of the assistance
provided to the refugees beginning earlier rather than later.

© Scoop Media

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