A refugee crisis is looming in northeastern Uganda as thousands of people escaping an upsurge in inter-ethnic fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continue to pour over the border.
The majority of those fleeing into Uganda's Nebbi District are women and children. They tell heart-wrenching stories about atrocities in the DRC.
Thus far, however, they have refused to be settled in camps designated by the Ugandan government and the UNHCR in the neighboring district of Arua, insisting instead on settling among the host community.
In an effort to address this emerging crisis, volunteers from the Nebbi branch of the Uganda Red Cross (URCS) have been collecting food donations on market days and distributing them to the most vulnerable refugee groups and to new arrivals.
"The survival of thousands of innocent people could be compromised if aid does not reach them immediately where they are," says Anitta Underlin, the International Federation representative in Uganda.
The Federation has launched an emergency appeal for 357,000 Swiss francs (US$261,000) to help the URCS provide essential assistance to 15,000 Congolese refugees for the coming three month. Relief items such as tarpaulins, blankets, kitchen sets, jerrycans and hoes will be distributed, while water and sanitation installations are also repaired.
The Red Cross action comes after a needs assessment mission showed that the refugee influx was coinciding with a dry spell in Nebbi, resulting in a water and sanitation crisis.
"Protected springs and wells are drying up, while boreholes are breaking down. We see women and children standing in long queues throughout the day, waiting to draw scarce water from the few remaining boreholes", says Underlin.
Many Congolese refugees had returned home in December following a relative lull in the conflict between rival rebel groups fighting for control of the mineral rich Beni region. Now they are fleeing again as renewed fighting results in loss of life, the looting and burning of houses, theft of livestock and even cannibalism.
The arrival of this fresh wave of refugees has also put a strain on the existing health care system in Nebbi, leading to an acute shortage of medical facilities, personnel and drugs. Outbreaks of meningitis and cholera, though not specifically linked to the refugee population, have been reported in some counties.
Says Underlin: "There is urgent need to improve the water supply and sanitation by repairing boreholes, protecting water wells, building temporary latrines and through hygiene education."
Fears are also rife among the host community that after the "invasion" of their water and health systems, their food resources will also be depleted if nothing is done to meet the refugees' needs.
Latest reports from the area, however, indicate that a number of refugees have started registering with the authorities, marking a softening of their stance against being settled in camps.
The Uganda Red Cross Society on its part, has already mobilzed twenty volunteers trained in disaster management while 77 others are undergoing specialized training.