In 2008, UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) made the decision to resettle 40,000 refugees in the Nakivale settlement in NW Uganda, after fighting escalated in the North Kivu district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Both the Nakivale and Oruchinga settlements were first established in 1959 by UNHCR, thus some families have been living on the settlement for over 50 years! UNHCR has now handed over all of the medical care to Medical Teams International which currently employees and trains all of the national staff in the 6 health centers spread across the settlement.
The settlements host refugees from 8 neighboring countries: DRC, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya. Although Nakivale is a refugee settlement, Nationals are free to live on the land and take advantage of the services offered, such as schooling and healthcare. Although the concept seemed strange to me at first, I now understand that this policy ensures fair and equal treatment for both refugees and nationals, especially considering that many Ugandans were living on the settlement land far before UNHCR decided to take it over. The settlement is divided into 21 zones and has 76 registered villages. In order to avoid tribal conflict, each zone is populated by a different ethnic group. The settlement encompasses 71 square miles and is now home to over 76,000 refugees.
On arrival, the refugees are first taken to a reception center where they are registered as asylum seekers until they go through the refugee eligibility committee. Once given a status as a refugee they are given a small plot of land and are provided with a ration card so that they can receive food from the World Food Program. They also receive basic supplies such as a plastic sheet, cooking pot, jerry can and a few small tools for land cultivation (Uganda has very welcoming policies for refugees. Most countries are not so generous).
The settlement is actually quite beautiful. It begins with fields of banana plantations and ends in a dry savannah-esqe valley that is littered with towering anthills, Acacia trees and cows with tusks that could easily impale a person. The rust red road, which descends deep into the settlement, offers breathtaking views of Lake Nakivale. Supposedly the lake is home to a family of crocodiles, however rumor has it that their numbers have dwindled, along with the exotic snakes and local monkey population as the numbers of Congolese refugees have continued to increase. The joke goes,
A few iPhone and 'through the car window shots'