Working in the refugee sites on the Oubangui River

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August 1st 2010
Published: October 23rd 2010
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Kids in Site FalcoKids in Site FalcoKids in Site Falco

This is the worst of all the refugee sites. Those who fled and couldn't find locals willing to share their homes ended up squatting in this abandoned factory, where the conditions were abysmal. Thankfully this site was closed in July and all the refugees living there were moved to a UNHCR-built camp.
So Bétou is basically a village, though it’s referred to here as a “small city” because it’s the capital of a province. Aside from local mud or wood dwellings, it has a big Italian-owned timber company whose processing facility is a few steps from the UNHCR compound, a small market that for some reason has a large proportion of vendors from Mauritania (which is nowhere near the Congo), one "restaurant," and three bars/discos. I am particularly thrilled about the discos, because possibly one of my favorite kinds of music in the world is Congolese music - you may recall I took dance lessons in Malawi…those were with Congolese, who are possibly the best dancers in Africa. I didn’t know this until I came here, but apparently Mobutu (the former DRC dictator) played a large role in developing Congo’s music and dance culture—the first time I have heard of a legacy of his that may have been positive.

During the week, I go on missions to the sites along the river where the refugees live, to meet with people and get an idea of the situation—which is dire. The refugees fled from the other side of the river (Democratic Republic of
Site MonzomboSite MonzomboSite Monzombo

This was another awful site, where around 400 refugees had no choice but to squat in a schoolhouse in very cramped, unsanitary conditions. They are all in the process of being moved to the new UNHCR camp.
Congo, where there is a seriously horrifying conflict over minerals, which you have probably heard about on the news) to this side (Republic of Congo, which is peaceful). The refugees largely outnumber the local population, and basically just became absorbed in the small villages that dot this side of the river. It was a fairly smooth process, because this is the second time they have had to flee: almost all of these people were already refugees here earlier in the decade, when there was another war, so they have close ties to the people on this side. That said, this part of RoC is a very poor place, and resources are very limited, so the refugees are creating huge pressure for land, food, and hunting and fishing rights. Each site has a formal leadership structure, known as the refugee committee, so I meet with them, as well as with more informal groups of underrepresented refugees like women, children, and ethnic minorities (especially Pygmys).

It took several months for international aid to make its way here, however, so it is hard to have a meaningful discussion of issues like gender equality and underage marriage when people are struggling just to
Kids at Site MonzomboKids at Site MonzomboKids at Site Monzombo

That's my colleague Hashim, our child protection officer, who has an amazing way with kids.
get their next meal. Many of the sites still haven’t even received a food distribution, because the World Food Program (WFP) is only now becoming operational here. So up until now, these refugees have been managing by doing menial labor for locals in order to get some food at the end of the day, and are barely getting by. The children who do manage to go to school attend school in the most rudimentary grass huts, largely unprotected from the elements and without basic materials like notebooks, blackboards, and study guides. And teachers have been unpaid since they arrived - which was almost a year ago! Health care is picking up, our two medical partners have established free clinics in several sites. But many sites are very isolated and still have no clinic nearby. Imaging your water breaking or being bitten by a venomous snake in a place with no cell phone reception (let alone means to afford a phone), no passing traffic to hitch a ride with (let alone the means for your own vehicle), and no health clinic for miles… If something goes wrong, you die pretty much.

One of the things I was tasked with in
Camp 15 avrilCamp 15 avrilCamp 15 avril

This is the UNHCR built camp. I know it doesn't look like it, but the conditions here are infinitely better. Each refugee family has their own dwelling, there are latrines and showers, wells for clean water, schools...
Congo (as you know I’ve since been promoted to a new post in Chad) was sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) - setting up systems for prevention and justice and medical/psychosocial care for survivors. SGBV is so commonplace in DRC that NPR called it the “Land of Rape.” This is not because SGBV is tolerated by the refugees themselves—it’s not, for the most part. But there has been a complete failure of enforcement of SGBV crimes in the DRC—not to mention that it is often law enforcement and the military themselves who are among the worst SGBV offenders. So the community doesn’t have a strong tradition of turning to the authorities when SGBV occurs. When I talk to women refugees about SGBV issues affecting them, I get nothing. And I can tell you there is a problem when you are told that there have been zero SGBV incidents. There most sadly isn’t a place on earth with zero SGBV incidents. And certainly not in refugee sites where youths and men have nothing to occupy their time and the traditional protections of community girls benefit from in their home villages are lacking. It is ironically encouraging to go to a site where people say, “Yes, we had 2 rape cases and one attempted rape” - this means the community is aware of the problem, and wants to address it.

The one thing that struck me the most about this area in general is the level of poverty, not just for refugees but for the locals as well. Before I came here, one of the few things I could glean about Bétou from the web is that it’s a huge international logging center. An Italian company, Likouala Timber, owns the rights to logging in this province. I had visited their very glossy website, which boasts of how much they are doing for the community and environment here. Then I get here, and the dirt roads are barely even passable; the town is a poor, muddy mess. The company did set up some electricity (in the part of town immediately adjacent to their processing facility, and the luxe residences of their international staff). But that’s it, as far as I can tell. There are huge logs big enough to drive our LandCruiser through being hauled out of the forest on dirty trucks all day long, marked for destinations like Finland. Where, oh where

This is the dock where the aid agencies keep their boats, used for taking staff to the refugee sites scattered along the Oubangui River.
is the revenue from all of this natural wealth going? It sure isn’t going into the community that inhabits this area, let alone the Pygmys who actually inhabit the forests. I have since learned that the locals who work for Likouala Timber are started to be seriously fed up, because apparently they haven’t been paid wages for some time. Also, Likouala used to give the local population the leftover debris from its processing for the locals to convert into charcoal for cooking. Likouala has since ceased that practice, and now manufactures the charcoal itself to sell to the population! When I ran into the guys who work for Likouala at the disco the other night it took all the willpower I could muster not to give them a piece of my mind. On my first day in Bétou, after the UN plane ride, we were greeted with a welcome lunch in the UNHCR paillote or cabana. The tablecloth laid out was striking: it bore a pattern of severed tree stumps, with the inside of the stump a deep blood red. How fitting, in retrospect, for a town that was on the map for no other reason than timber extraction (until
View of a village on the DRC side of the riverView of a village on the DRC side of the riverView of a village on the DRC side of the river

Not a bad way to get to work in the morning :)
the refugees arrived, that is). Anyway, that’s my rant for this installment 😉.

Weekends in Bétou are all about the nightlife, because there is nothing to do during the day but work. Saturdays and Sundays drone on; after breakfast we may watch TV in the cabana - it’s too hot and humid to do any outdoor activities. But watching "Friends" dubbed in French is equally or more irritating than watching it in English, so eventually you end up just going to the office to work. During my first weekend my colleagues and I decided to take a walk into “town” so I could see the market. About 2 minutes after we exited the gate I was ready to turn back - I was drenched in sweat and the sun was bearing down on us like a lead weight. But I pressed on, eager to see what “downtown” Bétou was like. The market was tiny and pretty repetitive, but it has a nice setting on the river. During the first month after my arrival the World Cup was going on, so we were all glued to the télé every night. Once that ended, we usually went to one of the
Docking at Liboko Docking at Liboko Docking at Liboko

Liboko is a large village that is now home to more refugees than locals. The refugee influx was so large that this is common in most villages along this part of the river.
three discos in town on Saturday nights. When I say “we” I refer to the 8 international staff working for UNHCR here. (In additional to us there are about 20 national staff (meaning Congolese) working in our office.) The 8 of us live in the base together and eat EVERY meal together, and basically do everything together. For better or worse, of course 😉. My colleagues are great but it’s definitely a challenge not to have any social outlet other than your workmates, no matter how much you like them. We aren’t the only internationals in town - Doctors without Borders has a huge operation here, but they are notorious throughout the world for an organizational culture of isolation, both professionally and socially. They are extremely difficult to work with and we never see them out. They apparently just sit in their compound drinking Pastis together on weekends. Other than than, there is only one other organization in town with international staff, ACTED. So my social life largely revolves around colleagues. We still manage to have fun, but life here is definitely all about work.

So as some of you know already, right upon arriving in Congo I was offered a coveted JPO position with UNHCR. JPOs are positions with UN agencies funded by host governments; in the U.S. there are a handful of JPO positions, all funded by the State Dept. for two-year positions with UNHCR. They’re really hard to get, even with UNHCR experience…so it was extremely exciting despite the less than ideal timing. They wanted me to start around mid-August, which would mean leaving my Congo contract early. But UNHCR Congo was very understanding and congratulatory on what is a very big promotion. So I spent the remaining weeks trying to get as much work done as possible while going through all the administrative formalities to leave Congo and assume my new post, which would be in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. I negotiated to get a small break in between contracts so I could take a small holiday in Cape Town, which will be the next installment!



p.s. the private blog thing is just too I am continuing with the public blogs. You can see the previous entry which I had emailed you about before, it's up on my public blog site just before this new one.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Everyday shoreline activityEveryday shoreline activity
Everyday shoreline activity

The river is the main hub of activity for women and children in the sites; they use it to fetch cooking and cleaning water, to bathe, to do laundry, and kids to swim and catch small fish.
Boat unloading goods at Eboko villageBoat unloading goods at Eboko village
Boat unloading goods at Eboko village

Overloaded boats ply the river between Brazzaville to the south and Bangui to the north, stopping in villages all along the way.
Gouga Route siteGouga Route site
Gouga Route site

Some refugees fled to villages further inland from the river, which are only accessible by the main north/south axis between Congo and Central African Republic. This one is called Gouga Route.
Betou by NightBetou by Night
Betou by Night

Hashim from UNHCR, Cisse from World Food Program, me and Maguie from UNHCR, and Andy from ACTED
Kids in pirogues on the riverKids in pirogues on the river
Kids in pirogues on the river

Pirogues are the sole means of transport between villages on the river, so this is a ubiquitous sight.
Adorable kids in Ite villageAdorable kids in Ite village
Adorable kids in Ite village

They were standing nearby watching us while we had meetings. And yes the kid on the far right is wearing an Obama t-shirt :)

26th October 2010

i'm so glad you're posting again! can't wait to hear more about the JPO position. mnau

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