This past summer there was unrest in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) just across the border from where I live in Bundibugyo. This caused an estimated 65,000 people to flee homes and family land to safety across the border in Uganda. It was a humanitarian crisis. This represented an increase of approximately 20-25% in the population of Bundibugyo, which was already a place of physical poverty, malnutrition, and land scarcity. It was more people than the biggest town center in the district. There was no food, water, or shelter for the refugees. Not by a long shot.
It was a time of anxiety, stress and working to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. At the time I didn’t feel like I could post much about it, because there just wasn’t any time. Afterwards, it was emotionally so heavy that it took time to process and re-process. It’s been a few months, but now I finally feel that I’m ready to write about it…
Thursday, July 11, 2013
In the evening we heard a rumor… ‘War in the Congo.’
Friday, July 12, 2013
In the morning my work crew loaded up the truck and headed out to the Picfare worksite. It was about 4km from the WHM campus and I was implementing a rehabilitation project on a community water reservoir with a team of Ugandan masons and 2 summer engineering interns from the US. On the way to the site we had the radio turned on the and news was being broadcast in Lubwisi. I asked what was being said and one of the guys in the work crew said that they were reporting that refugees were crossing into Bundibugyo, but they didn’t know why or how many were coming…only that the situation was not encouraging.
We reached the worksite and I started the crew on their day’s work. After they were organized, I continued to have an internal gnawing feeling about the reports on the refugees. I knew that the areas where they were fleeing to for safety were along the river, just across the border. And I knew that they would be going to the river for water. For water that flows through many villages before it reaches that point. For water that would be dangerous to drink. I decided to call the Chairman LCV (who is the governor of Bundibguyo) to find out more about the situation. I couldn’t get through due to the mass of calls, so I sent him an SMS and got back to work.
He returned my call about an hour later. ‘We have a situation where several thousand refugees have crossed the border, but we have no safe place for them, no water, no food, no tarps for anyone to sleep under.’ He said that he was organizing a relief effort, contacting aid agencies, and accepting any contributions to help the situation. I said that World Harvest Mission had always partnered with the government to help and that we would do whatever we could with the resources that we had to provide assistance to the relief effort. Specifically we talked about the need for identifying land where a temporary camp could be organized. I said that there was some land around the WHM farm and airstrip that might be possible, but that I would need to do a quick survey to see how much was available in those locations.
I left the work at the Picfare Tank under the care of a foreman and headed back to Nyahuka Town, not really knowing what to do next. I called up Edward, the headmaster at Christ School Bundibugyo, to see if he would meet up with me and show me the CSB land that we might be able to use for the refugees. I think that somewhere in here I missed lunch. As I drove onto the main road at the junction across from the mission I saw a Uganda Red Cross vehicle and I flagged them down. I met the RC director for western Uganda and we exchanged greetings and contact information – not then knowing how the response was going to be organized, but knowing that having stakeholders contacts was at least a start.
I picked Edward up at the school and we drove out to the CSB farmland and WHM airstrip. We did a quick and dirty walking survey of the land and estimated approximately 2 acres of available land at CSB farms, 3-4 acres of CSB land near the airstrip, and approximately 10 acres alongside of the airstrip. There were plus and minuses about each segment and the biggest minus was that there were not all located in the same location. But they were near the main road and near water systems that could be modified to serve a potential temporary camp.
I phoned the LCV to give him an update and he told me to come and meet him out at the border where they would holding a meeting. On our way back through Nyahuka Town to the border I passed a UN/UNICEF vehicle at a roadside ‘local food’ restaurant and I stopped quickly and popped my head in the door. There were several people there and I said that I was looking for whoever was from UNICEF. I quickly recognized a friend, Ben Mbusa, from the district department of health and he introduced me to Paul – the UNICEF water and sanitation (WATSAN) specialist for the western region. We exchanged contacts and Edward and I zoomed to the boarder.
On the way to the border, I found a friend who is a border official with the customs department and we gave him a lift. He needed a lift because the road work on the new bridge was closed and all vehicles had to ford the river. He wisely didn’t want to test his vehicles clearance. He loaded up and we plowed through the river in my 4X4 pickup and continued to the border. As we hit the border village of Busunga, we could see many, many people. In the market they were standing, sitting, buying, selling, carrying, crying, hot, sweaty, tired…we were slowed by crowds and checkpoints as we neared the border.
It was reassuring to have my customs friend in the car as we were given quick clearance through the checkpoints. We reached the boarder and saw streams of people crossing – carrying everything that they could manage. There were government vehicles galore and a large outdoor security and planning meeting ongoing at the riverside checkpoint. As I walked to meeting, Edward looked around and smiled and said, “I think that I’ll wait in the car…there are too many ‘big men’ in that meeting. You go ahead ‘big man.’ I laughed and said that I would be back in a few minutes.
Without commenting specifically on those making up the attendance of that meeting, I will suffice it to say that it was apparent that the Uganda government was committed to the security of Bundibugyo and to ensuring a viable humanitarian relief effort. I was introduced to the meeting by the Chairman and I reported the options that WHM had available in terms of land. A task force to represent the district government was appointed and we agreed to meet again about potential land options in the evening. I dropped Edward off at CSB and headed back out to Picfare to collect my crew and bring them back to Nyahuka. After getting them squared away and paid away, I headed back out to the WHM airstrip for the evening meeting. The sun lit up the evening clouds with burnt orange and deep reds as we met in the settling dusk. There were lots of issues. The ground was too soggy, it was too near the border, the airstrip might be destroyed, we might need to use the airstrip…the list went on and we were all weary. I went back home and fell asleep exhausted.
Saturday, July 13, 2013
At 9am I was in Bundibugyo town for a operational planning meeting. The meeting did not start on time. NGO representatives trickled in late, much to the chagrin of the local government leadership who had called the meeting. There were discussions on whether to begin the meeting in their absence, but the meeting remained delayed as these were significant partners who needed to be represented.
The meeting kicked off sometime around 11am. There were introductions and updates – most importantly the updated numbers that the refugees were now numbering in the tens of thousands. Preliminary reports were read about conditions at the border were refugees were haphazardly setting up temporary spaces wherever they could find it. Insufficient food and open defecation was reported. The task committees were listed and modified – I volunteered to serve on the WATSAN (water and sanitation) committee. Each committee made a brief report of work completed, although there was not much at this point as the committees were just formed that day. At the end of the meeting the district officials announced that the location of the temporary facility to house the refugees (known as a transit center) would be established at the land neighboring the Bubukwanga Sub-County headquarters, which in the end was a relief that I could focus on WATSAN issues and not land management issues. Our WATSAN team met briefly and agreed to get lunch and rendezvous at the site afterwards (at this point it was already mid afternoon). At this point we scattered our own ways.
After lunching, I drove with Ben Mbusa, from the Bundibuygo Dept of Health to the new site. At this point it was about 4pm. I arrived tired. As I stepped out of my truck onto this overgrown grassy field – the magnitude of what needed to be done hit me. It sapped me of my remaining energy. There was nothing at this site. Just overgrown grass. And we needed to prepare it for 20,000+ (and this was a terrible rough estimate).
I said a quick silent prayer: “God please intervene, please help!” No one else from the WATSAN committee was there except Ben and I. We tried calling several people from the committee, but the cellular network was jammed with phone calls, there was no getting through. We walked around the field, but didn’t know where the limits would be able to be set. We needed a plan and resources – AND WE NEEDED TO BE MOVING FAST! Refugees had been stuck at the border for 2 days and whatever food and money that they brought with them was quickly running out. Each day that passed without clean water supplies and food the danger of a large scale outbreak of highly communicable disease (like cholera) and mass hunger increased exponentially . And more refugees kept coming.
I finally got in touch with some of the other colleagues on the WATSAN committee. They were spread out all over Bundibugyo in other meetings and assessments – there were not enough human resources and each person was serving on multiple committees and had to report back to their home offices. Everyone was doing the best with what they had, but the magnitude of the incredible influx of people was unexpected and we were scrambling. We made plans to meet early at the site in the morning and I returned back to the mission after dark. I ate a quick bite to eat – likely prepared by one of my generous fellow missionaries – and collapsed into bed.
Sunday, July 13, 2013
I tossed and turned most of the night. I peeled myself out of bed before dawn and gathered whatever engineering tools I thought might be useful – measuring wheel, GPS, gridded sketch paper, pipe wrenches…I didn’t know what the day would bring. As the sun was rising, my two summer engineering interns, Jeff and Kevin, hopped in my truck and we drove back up the road to the site. When I arrived a local crew of men was working on clearing the field. I set up shop quickly and started Jeff and Kevin on measuring the field with the wheel and GPS and sketching out the results. Whoever was available from the WATSAN committee met and we made a day one plan – we needed at least 1 block of latrines, one water tanker, and one water storage tank with a reticulation system for distribution, because refugees would be coming to the site starting today. Red Cross directed the construction of the latrines, UNICEF organized the water tanker and coordinated with the district to borrow 2 available 10,000 L tanks from the government schools that were not in session (note UNICEF later replaced the tanks at the schools as well). I volunteered to create the reticulation systems for 4 tanks and the District Water Office constructed the bases for the 2 tanks to stand on with WHM financing.
I grabbed the interns from the site and we headed to Bundibugyo town to find whatever we could in the local hardware shops. I explained to the interns what I wanted from the design and I let them crunch the supply list as we were driving the dusty, under-construction road. We reached SHYAM Hardware and began explaining what we needed. It got complicated because of the quantities that we needed to buy, so they took us to the store room and had us pick out whatever we needed and bring it to the front. We bought their full supply of brass taps and all of their GI Tees and Elbows.
We had to go to ABBAS Hardware to complete our shopping for reducing bushes and HDPE fittings. We made a friend, Ammon, from the Danish Refugee Council and he offered to come with us to help us fabricate the tap-stands. We drove down to the WHM campus and by this point we were famished. I sent the interns to their house and I went to mine and treated Ammon to some wonderful: LEFTOVERS! Well, it can’t be too fancy when it’s a crisis. We ate quickly and went to the mission workshop to fabricate. I set Jeff, Kevin, and Ammon to work cutting threads into GI pipe for spacers and assembling the GI fittings.
The afternoon passed as we cut and threaded metal pipes, wrapped joints in teflon tape, and lined up and tightened fittings. There was laughter and joking, but mixed in was a measure of weariness and urgency. We finalized two of the distribution stands and improvised supporting stakes for the system. We packed everything back up into the truck and drove the 16km back to the refugee transit center.
When we arrived late afternoon things had moved forward, but much work still needed to be done. Some tents had been erected, the Red Cross was working on a makeshift kitchen, and the WATSAN team had made some progress. We found a tank being delivered, and the two bases under construction.
The earthen bases slowly came to completion as we excavated the trench for the first tap stand. We discovered that the fittings for the tanks that came from the schools were too small to handle the high demand that would be coming from the new installation, so we had to send someone in search of bigger fittings from town. We waited. And we waited some more. As nightfall approached we began working by the vehicle headlights. Drilling holes, attaching fittings, and always we seemed short of having enough of the right tools.
About 9pm, we had finished the connections for one tank and one tap stand with 14 faucets. The water tanker pulled up to begin filling the tank. A crowd of refugees began to queue. We found that we had no ladder for the driver to insert the water hose into the tank. Then the pump on the tanker truck failed to work. We waited for 15 more minutes. The numbers queuing increased as did impatience from both aid workers and refugees alike. Water was needed for cooking. Water was needed for washing hands. Water was needed for drinking. The pump finally kicked to life and started pouring water into the tank. As the level increased, water began flowing to the taps and people began collecting. It wasn’t enough. But it was enough for tonight.
Kevin, Jeff, Kiza, and I wearily got back into the truck and drove back late to WHM. Somehow we ate dinner and crawled into bed. It was late.
Monday, July 14, 2013
Morning came early. Breakfast. Load the truck. And back to the transit center. The day before approximately 500 refugees came to the transit center. Today we were expecting several more thousand to be added. We needed more storage capacity and water distribution sites. How much would we need? How fast would we need it to be installed? How fast could we actually install it? We didn’t have answers to any of these questions. We didn’t know how many people would end up coming across the border as refugees; we didn’t know how many would need to be housed at the transit center; we didn’t know how many people could fit on the land provided. All we knew was that we didn’t currently have enough and if we fell too far behind there would be a humanitarian disaster. I started the day confident that we would make more progress because we should have a good rhythm from the previous days work.
We arrived back at the site and found the first storage tank empty and the water tanker was out getting more water. And taking a long time doing it. People were queuing, and complaints were brewing. Water was needed to prepare morning porridge. Stress was high. There were no answers. I got a team of laborers working on trenching the pipeline for the next tapstand which would be much more centrally located. It required about 100 m of trenching and significant negotiation (exhausting). After work began, I talked with some people about site-planning and gave some advice. Things were being constructed haphazardly and there was no official site planner.
A new UNHCR staff coordination member called a WATSAN meeting to get a status update and for us to start planning. We sat in plastic lawn chairs on a narrow porch of a small government building near the transit center. We had introductions and thanks for work done so far. And we started crunching numbers. Water supply was lacking, water storage was lacking, there were not enough latrines and the ones there were already filling up. It felt that it was becoming a dire situation. A report told us that they were expecting several thousand additional refugees to be transported from the border to the transit center and that the planning number for us to prepare for was 20,000. By Friday. The situation felt, honestly, very hopeless at that point. On Sunday we had constructed water storage and distribution for approximately 2,000 people at best and our water tanker could serve up to 4 thousand people per day…if we could figure out where he was.
I consulted with my friend at UNICEF to see where the water tanker was. We both got on the phone trying to get ahold of him to see what the holdup was. It was late morning and water had not yet been delivered. Shortly thereafter the tanker truck finally arrived and began filling the tank.
Aid workers from other agencies began coming to me for site planning advice. Somehow in the mix of everything, the advice I had given previously put me in the position of site planner. I walked the site as we planned for new latrines, new kitchens, new sleeping structures. We only had 500 tents so the rest everyone else would have to be housed in large constructed temporary housing.
One of the local plumbers in Bundibugyo came running up to get me. The water tanker was stuck in the mud. The water hose from the pipe had been leaking creating a muddy mess around the tires of the tanker truck. We tried getting an army of pushers to help. No luck. I took a deep breath and hitched my pickup truck in reverse to this 5 ton water truck and prayed that I wouldn’t rip out my drive train. I slipped my truck into low 4X4 and both trucks hit the accelerator. The tanker slowly eased out of the mud and then caught traction and accelerated towards me quickly. I had to lay on my horn to get the driver to stop before he crunched the front end of my vehicle.
It was the end of the afternoon. The trench for the new tapstand was finished and we went to install both the tank and taps. Several hours into the evening, the second tank was installed and beginning to be filled. The camp was becoming busier now with refugees as the numbers increased into the thousands. I walked around as the sun was setting in the first sort of free moment that I’d had since the crises had begun to take in the situation. Children were filthy and crying. Refugees were wondering around the camp in a visible haze. People were standing in line with whatever container they could find as they waited for food which seemed to never finish cooking. I passed a woman seated by a communal shelter. Her young children were at her feet playing in the dirt. She was staring off into the distance and tears were streaming down her face, immobilized by her grief and loss. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking about at that moment. I couldn’t imagine her grief and loss of all hear earthly possessions and potentially separation and loss of loved ones. My heart broke for her and she sat there broken hearted. Come Lord Jesus – and make all things new.
We arrived back at home late (again) and ate something quickly and dove into bed for some rest. I tossed and turned for several hours and my mind raced through the numbers and images of the day. We didn’t have enough water supply. And the camp numbers were increasing too fast to keep up. I didn’t have enough financial resources. I got up and sent a brief e-mail to my supporters and asked for help raising 2000 USD for the next few days. I was physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and completely stressed. I went back to bed. I felt sick to my stomach. I got up and spent the next hour dry-heaving in the bathroom. Overwhelmed. Tired. Weary. Come Lord Jesus.
Tuesday, July 15, 2013
I woke up tired and wanted to stay in bed. Wanting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Wishing that my dreams were reality and that my reality was a nightmare that I could wake from. The aches and pains in my muscles and joints testified to the rough reality. I ate a quick bowl of cereal. I checked my email and I found over 20 pledges of extra emergency support – my supporters had pledged over 10,000 USD overnight. Tears welled up as some of the burden lifted and I thanked God for the provision. More options seemed on the table.
The water supply team began to fire on all cylinders today. I brought in a Ugandan contractor to oversee the installation of new tanks and water storage bladders that arrived in the morning. I brought in two trusted Ugandan friends with construction experience to oversee the construction of soak pits and corrals around the water access point to organize the masses cut down on mud.
My two interns, Jeff and Kevin were more than ready to be cut loose on their own and construct and install two additional tapstands and get them ready to be hooked up to the tanks that the contractor was installing. MSF arrived and began setting up a medical zone and installing additional water storage tanks. Oxfam and LWF came in and brought project management staff and promised more materials including more water storage tanks were on the road behind them and should be arriving the following days.
At this point in our WATSAN meetings we identified major areas of shortfalls. We realized that we only had one water supply truck and that it was able to provide 40,000 L daily and an additional 15,000 L daily from CICO the road contractor. Other organizations said that water tanker trucks were being organized, but that they didn’t know when they would be arriving. Late afternoon I realized that action needed to be taken on the water tanker truck situation immediately. Since I had additional commitments of financial support, I got on the phone with some contacts in Kampala and by evening had a water tanker truck booked to come out. However, because of the long distance, the water truck wouldn’t actually be in service until Thursday. This put us in a frightenly tight water supply situation for the following day, Wednesday.
Wednesday, July 16, 2013
I knew it was going to be a tough day the moment that I arrived in the transit center. I could immediately tell that the size of the camp was growing quickly, that we were running out of space for sleeping, that the kitchen wasn’t keeping up, and that the water supply tanker was nowhere to be found.
I might describe the day as the inglorious day of organization. There were meetings on top of meetings. Plans were proposed, debated and made. A site-planner arrived from UNHCR and then plans were unmade, re-debated, and then remade. As we met, the sun rose in the sky and the number of refugees in the camp continued to increase. The sun began to set in the sky, the numbers of refugees continued to increase. It was an exhausting day and more questions were raised then we had answers for. Big questions, like how many refugees would continue to come across the border? How long would they need to be here? How much land could we need in total and did we have enough? Should we only use water trucking at the expense of 400 USD per day per truck or should we install a pipeline at a much larger capital cost, but a very low operational cost? Few answers. We left the day more organized and encouraged, but also realizing that we had lost critical time of actual infrastructure installation.
Thursday, July 17, 2013
The WHM sponsored water tanker arrived in the morning and after quick introduction, set to work fetching water. The camp was beginning to take shape with many more shelters being constructed and even a small market began to be set up in the middle by entrepreneurial locals.
We continued expanding our water storage and distribution system and finalizing the work of the previous days. Then someone from the Red Cross came up to me and said, where are the water tankers? We have no water for cooking. As my heart sank again in my stomach while I tried to get the tanker truck drivers on the phone. I fond out that the road construction company was doing work in the district capital 5 km away and was diverting all traffic onto a local one lane back road. The trucks were stuck in traffic backlog! Of all days for this diversion to begin tanking place! I talked with several government officials who had the authority to make sure that the water trucks would not be diverted. They said of course that they shouldn’t, and that they would make sure that it didn’t keep happening.
The trucks finally arrived and offloaded their water and began to head back to the source for more. They quickly called me again and said that they were again being diverted. I hoped in my truck and drove like lightning to town. I found the trucks waiting by the barricade. One of the unique things about being an educated foreigner working in a remote region is that it is usually automatically assumed that you know what you are doing and have the rights to authorize ‘changes to the program’ even if they were not aware about the change from their rightful boss. As a personal rule, I don’t bank on this aspect of my ‘foreignness’, but this was an emergency. I approached the police at the barricade and informed them they they were not allowed to divert the water tanker trucks, but they they were to let them pass on the shoulder so that they could service the transit center as fast as possible. (This had been agreed on by representatives from the prime minister’s office and the district representative to the president’s office, who had the authority to order such a change in this emergency situation, I was just aiding the situation by communicating the message faster). The trucks were let through and the water supply picked up to the transit center for the rest of the day.
Friday, July 18, 2013 – Friday, August 30th, 2013
It was a week since the crisis began and the situation at the camp was beginning to normalize. The next six weeks involved continue expansion and organization of the camp. Eventually we had 6 water tanker trucks running during all daylight hours to supply the camp. I was asked by the WATSAN committee to design a gravity pipeline to bring water from a source 10 km away to the camp so that we could stop the water trucking. I spent four days working on a rough survey and a preliminary design. It was then advised by the lead organization that we were not going to build a new gravity pipeline because of the capital cost and the uncertainty of the timeline for how long the transit center would be operational. A week later the position changed and I finished the design and handed it over to Oxfam and UNICEF who implemented and funded (respectively) the project.
As I have spent time reflecting on my time serving refugees in Bundibugyo, I have reflected specifically on God’s heart for the poor and downtrodden, for the alien and foreigner in the land, for those seeking refuge.
“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” - Leviticus 19:33-34
The Israelites were “strangers in the land of Egypt.” They were refugees from severe drought, they came to Egypt seeking food. God reminds the Israelites of this as He gives them the Levitical law and tells them how He wants them to treat refugees among them – that they “shall love [them] as yourself.” And further note that this is identical language to Christ’s proclamation of the second greatest commandment, that you shall “love your neighbor as yourself.” He wants us to view refugees as our neighbors.
Our Father in Heaven, would you be the refuge of the refugees in the world today? We ask your presence and relief for those in Syria and South Sudan. Calm the conflict. Renew hearts. Send your laborers. Expand your Kingdom. In Jesus’ name-