Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Visiting Nakivale

Monday 24 October marked United Nations Day a global occasion to highlight, celebrate and reflect on the work of the United Nations and its family of specialised agencies. It was also an opportunity to recognise the support and contribution of civil society to the UN through organisations such Australia for UNHCR. UNHCR is increasingly relying on support from individuals around the world, and Australians are making a very big contribution to its work in many ways.

A few weeks ago five donors and I completed our “Nakivale Trek for Refugees”, which involved an incredibly hard five-day slog through the Ruwenzori mountain range in western Uganda.

To say it was challenging is an understatement. The Ruwenzoris are remote, rugged, and very very wet. Although we had been warned about the muddy conditions, we were totally unprepared when we had to abandon our walking shoes and spend five days in gumboots, slipping and squelching our way through the endless bogs and marshes that made us feel as though we had stumbled onto the set of Lord of the Rings.

What kept us all going was the terrific camaraderie that quickly developed amongst us (inevitable perhaps when you are all sharing the same tent), as well as the knowledge that we were doing this for a worthwhile cause.

Perhaps it was not surprising then that all the trekkers felt the highlight of this journey was not surmounting the peaks of the Ruwenzoris, beautiful as they were, but the day we spent in the Nakivale refugee settlement at the end of the trek.

Although one day was not nearly long enough to see and experience the many facets of this settlement, we were able to visit a number of projects supported by Australia for UNHCR donors.

Some of our experiences were confronting, which is a reality in refugee situations. As one of our party described his visit to the health centre, “For me the visit to the health centre was very confronting. The day we visited there were approximately 500 people at the health centre awaiting medical treatment. This was a relatively quiet day despite most rooms being filled to capacity. It is tough to imagine what a busy day is like. To our shock we were told that the whole refugee settlement had only two doctors due to the skills shortage, which is crazy to think considering the population is almost 60,000.
A young boy receives treatment in the health centre

To end our health centre tour we visited the children’s ward - a space the size of a small classroom - where we met a three year old boy who had lost sight in one eye and had third degree burns to more than 50% of his body due to him pulling down a pot of boiling water on himself in the family’s makeshift kitchen.”

In a totally different experience in the afternoon we attended the opening of the computer training centre, which is also funded by Australian donors. On its first day of operations more than 900 young people signed up for computer training skills. The centre also had internet access, which has opened up a whole world of new possibilities to refugees, such as distance education.

Australian donors should be proud that they have helped achieve so much in Nakivale and that through our support to UNHCR we are part of a much bigger global humanitarian family.