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Disappearing across the border: circular return and the social dynamics of secrecy and concealment between Uganda's Nakivale Refugee Settlement and eastern DRC



Issue 3 of the Congo Research Briefs presents a condensed and early analysis of dynamics of secrecy and concealment in relation to the circular movements of Congolese refugees between Nakivale and eastern DRC. In this paper, the realities that Nakivale’s inhabitants present to the “outside world” allow a better understanding of the role and position of refugee camps in regional conflict mobilities.
Disappearing across the border: circular
return and the social dynamics of secrecy
and concealment between Uganda’s Nakivale
Refugee Settlement and eastern DRC
Congo Research Briefs | Issue 3
Jolien Tegenbos
Photo from Mariajose Silva Vargas, a PhD Fellow at United Nations University – Masstricht University
Hidden among the hills on the shores of a large lake in Uganda’s
Isingiro district lies Nakivale. Long before it became an ocial refugee
settlement in 1960, the kings of Ankole who reigned in the area used
to retreat to Nakivale in times of inter-kingdom conict. The locality
of Isanja, close by the lake, was considered a sacred place where the
kings were also brought upon their deaths to eventually disappear
under the watchful gaze of the king’s guards, guided by the spirits of
the lake. This practice had long been abandoned when Isanja became
the rst site in Nakivale where Rwandan refugees settled in the late
1950s and early 1960s. However, still respected by the few locals who
inhabited the area, Isanja was a place people avoided going for fear
they would disappear and never come back. An old chief living on
the hills remembered that Ugandans were suspicious of the refugees’
magical powers and identities at that time because they had somehow
withstood the spirits of the lake and had managed not to disappear.
Refugee camps are one of the most visible landmarks of forced
displacement today. Unlike refugees living in villages, towns, or cities,
those staying in camps cannot engage in practices to conceal their
refugee status or to disappear into the host population. Everyone
knows that you are a refugee when you live in Nakivale. Yet, in many
ways, refugee camps are also places in which a variety of dynamics,
activities, and identities are purposely hidden and rendered invisible.
While the chief was, of course, right in stating that the Rwandan
refugees had not physically disappeared, people eeing violent conict
and persecution are ,in reality, hiding across the border, outside of
the reach of their governments and armed groups, and under the
legal protection of an international humanitarian umbrella. In this
sense, it can be argued that refugees and the internally displaced
do disappear on certain levels and from certain actors. A refugee’s
identity is anonymous on principle and should only be known by
the UNHCR, humanitarian agencies and the department of refugee
aairs of the host country (UNHCR 2018). To help maintain this
anonymity and protection, access to the camp is, again, in principle,
only possible through a rigorous asylum procedure, and visitors are
required to make their identities and intentions known to camp
authorities before and on arrival. Of course, time and again many
events have recurrently highlighted the numerous cracks in this
ocial system of protection, revealing, for example, easy penetration
by combatants and intelligence agencies from abroad.
Yet, methods of (protective) anonymity and invisibility are
not only developed from the top down, but are also part of a bottom-
up process, through which a variety of actors practice dierent ways
to hide a variety of activities, mobilities, personal histories, identities,
trajectories, and experiences from a variety of other actors both
within and outside the camp or host country. However, while some
refugees have cut communication entirely with their compatriots
in the country of origin, others remain in touch in several ways.
Social interactions and information sharing with friends and
relatives through social media, phone calls, money exchange, and
circular mobility between the camp and countries of origin take
place regularly and constitute a way of maintaining relationships
and support networks. While their identities are thus known to their
contacts ‘at home,’ refugees often attempt to conceal their presence
in the camp by being vague or fabricating stories to these personal
contacts, thereby creating their own protective measures. However,
while communication from a distance (e.g., through social media)
allows a certain degree of vagueness on one’s doings and whereabouts,
this becomes much more dicult when both parties physically meet
each other, for example through circular return movements.
By examining circular return movements between Nakivale
and eastern DRC, this research brief will explore the practices and
social dynamics of secrecy and concealment among Congolese
refugees who hide their relationship with the camp from their
friends and relatives “back home.” While refugees of many dierent
nationalities sporadically or regularly return to their countries
of origin for short or long periods while maintaining a residence
in Uganda,4 for personal and ethical reasons,5 this paper focuses
specically on Congolese respondents. Congolese constitute the
majority of the approximately 100,000 inhabitants of Nakivale
at the time of this eld research. They arrived in large groups in
the mid-1990s, the second half of the 2000s, and in 2012-2013.
Smaller numbers have continued to trickle in throughout the years.
During two two-week research trips in 2018, I accompanied two
friends whom I will call Bamidele and Faruq on short family visits
to their home towns of Goma and Bukavu.6 In addition, a number
of Nakivale residents connected me with friends and family in
and around Goma and Bukavu, who, in turn, provided me with a
broader perspective on the camp from the outside, and allowed me
to explore issues of return and circular movement further. The eld
trips to Goma and Bukavu were made in the context of a four-year
doctoral research project on the role and position of refugee camps in
conict mobilities in Central-East Africa.7 The focus of the Ph.D. lies
on Nakivale Refugee Settlement in which most of the ethnographic
eldwork takes place. As such, this research brief presents an early
analysis of the camp as a place to hide in relation to the dynamics of
circular return between Nakivale and eastern DRC.
A total of 55 inhabitants of Goma, Bukavu, and Nakivale
directly participated in this specic research, in addition to
interactions with other Nakivale inhabitants within the framework
of the broader Ph.D. The analysis greatly beneted from a reection
meeting with four researchers from GEC-SH at the Institut
Supérieur Pédagogique at the end of my stay in Bukavu (Irène
Bahati, Vianney Cukas Muderhwa, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda and
Christian Chiza Kashurha) and conversations with two researchers
in Goma (Chrispin Mvano and Olivier Ndoole).
In the following sections, I analyze the dynamics of secrecy
surrounding cross-border mobility by starting with a section on
secrecy and circular return followed by explaining how people’s
secrecy over their presence in Nakivale gradually infringed on my
position as a researcher and companion, necessitating my complicity
in concealing their doings and whereabouts and eventually also,
partly, my own identity. I then proceed to focus on two themes that
often determined conversations in Nakivale and DRC about circular
return and the presence of Congolese in refugee camps: (1) discourses
on danger and insecurity in DRC (titled as ‘the battleground’), and
(2) resettlement aspirations.
Refugee return – whether permanent, for long periods or short visits
– is rarely an easy process. From the end of the nineties onwards,
academic researchers have generally agreed that return is a very
problematic concept and a dicult process, casting returnees into
new socio-economic and political realities (Tegenbos & Vlassenroot
2018: 10). Further, scholars working on circular mobilities have
found that the concept and practice of return is also a very uid and
ambiguous one. Many refugees attempt to minimize risk by moving
between host and ‘home’ countries, simultaneously beneting from
refugee protection and socio-economic connections with their
countries of origin (Hovil 2010, Kaiser 2010, Harpviken 2014).
These practices render migration an inherent part of the return
process. Circular movements among Congolese refugees living in
Nakivale take place regularly. The border is near, and passports and
other travel documents can be bought or negotiated easily. These
movements may involve visiting friends and relatives, trading goods,
checking up on farms and cattle herds, and combatants engaging
in armed incursions. They can be part of a long-term repatriation
process, as one person, for example, explained his decision to
undertake several trips a year to Goma while gradually trying to create
a base for permanent return through reestablishing social networks
and searching for property.8 In other cases, circular movements
help to support a protracted stay in exile, establish opportunities
for business, maintain social relations, or briey relieve the stress of
nancial, social, and emotional challenges people face in the camp.
In the case of my two companions, Bamidele and Faruq, this stress of
‘camp life’ served as the main reason for their family visits to Goma
and Bukavu. However, their return was not an easy process for either
of them.
Nakivale has a profound relationship with the dynamics of
secrecy, concealment, and mystery. The social interaction between
Congolese in Nakivale and eastern DRC, whether from a distance
or during return visits, is only one area in which this relationship
is established. These dynamics became powerfully clear during
and after the two research trips in which my participation in hiding
people’s presence in the camp became crucial. From the start of
my eld research in Nakivale in 2017, I had been invited by several
Congolese to accompany them on their circular return journeys to
DRC. Given the possible legal implications of a refugee crossing the
border with her/his country of origin, I conditioned my participation
in an invitation to a journey that was to take place anyway. The details
of the two return trips were thoroughly prepared and discussed with
Bamidele and Faruq in advance. Further, upon hearing of my travel
plans, many Nakivale inhabitants requested me to visit their friends
and family who lived in and around Goma and Bukavu. However,
the purpose of the research trips was discussed ,and consent was
obtained before departure.
Yet, neither myself nor the people who put me in touch
with their acquaintances in DRC seemed to have realized in advance
how these visits, in the context of a research project, risked exposing
their presence in the camp. Upon arrival in DRC, I was unexpectedly
drawn into a web of mystery and secrecy as Nakivale inhabitants
pleaded with me, last-minute, to hide their relationship with the
camp when meeting their friends and relatives. I consequently
started to take an active part in concealing what would gradually
come to seem like a rather public secret, at least relative to the camp
as a whole. Building on Simmel’s sociology of secrecy and secret
societies (1906, 1950), Taussig theorized the “public secret” as “that
which is generally known, but cannot be articulated. (…)The secret
of the public secret is that there is none” (Taussig 1999: 5 & 7). In
the context of the return trips, the public secret existed as a general
awareness on the part of the inhabitants of Goma and Bukavu
that many of their fellow denizens quietly left the cities to live in
refugee camps abroad. On the personal level of all but one Nakivale
inhabitant, their presence in the camp was not openly communicated
to everyone they knew in DRC and kept deliberately hidden from
public view. Fabricated stories about their doings and whereabouts
in Uganda replaced actual reality, although almost everyone had one
or two condants who were ocially aware of their real situation and
with whom I was often linked to in DRC. In turn, the Congolese I
interacted with in Goma and Bukavu knew that those staying in the
camps generally invented stories about studying or doing business in
Kampala (Uganda’s capital). Nakivale inhabitants thus attempted
to maintain their personal secret in DRC amid a general public
awareness that many Congolese in Uganda are in one way or another
connected to the camps and lie about it.
My journeys with Bamidele to Goma and with Faruq to Bukavu in
2018 unfolded quite dierently. I accompanied Bamidele to Goma
where he visited his family regularly while maintaining a residence in
Nakivale. He had ed Bunia at the age of 15 when he and his family
were briey living there in 2005. In the chaos of an attack by ‘rebels’
in the area, Bamidele and his little sister found themselves separated
from the others and eventually ended up in Uganda. Unfortunately,
my stay in Goma largely elapsed without Bamidele. The unfolding
of dierent developments in Nakivale required Bamidele’s sudden
attention, which compelled him to return on the very day of our
arrival. Although I remained in touch with his close family during my
stay, I was thus unable to follow the personal process of Bamidele’s
For Faruq, on the other hand, going back to Bukavu to
attend his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary was his rst return since
arriving in Nakivale a year earlier. In the camp, Faruq often proudly
stated that he was not a refugee, but a businessman. “For me, I am not
a refugee. I did not come from across the border with my jerrican and
mattress on my head, eeing violence and war. I am a businessman.”9
Faruq had come to Uganda to nd a way towards bulaya (Congolese
Swahili for ‘Europe,’ but also often a broader term for ‘the West’) via
resettlement, a procedure that is much easier accessed in the camps
than in urban environments. He had studied informatics at one of
the better universities in South Kivu, but he had become frustrated
with the political instability and economic insecurity in Bukavu
after four years of unemployment. In Bukavu, Faruq and I regularly
spent time together with and without his friends and family. It was
thus especially my trip with Faruq that revealed the many complex
intricacies and diculties that were involved in maintaining the
secret of his relationship with the camp.
Importantly, both Faruq and Bamidele had not
communicated their real whereabouts to everyone they knew in
DRC. Faruq had been forced to inform his parents of his true
intentions in Uganda a few months earlier when he ran out of money
to pay rent in Kampala (Faruq generally divided his time between
Kampala and Nakivale depending on his nancial reserves10). For
Bamidele, only his parents and brother were aware that he lived in
the camp. Apart from Bamidele and Faruq, all but one Nakivale
inhabitant asked me to hide their real doings and whereabouts
in Uganda from public view in DRC. Their reasons varied from
security concerns to family problems and worries that their contacts
in DRC would not understand why they were in Nakivale. These
often also revealed deep feelings of shame about living in a refugee
camp. Many of these reasons connect to the reasons why they had
originally left DRC, while others were more linked to their current
situation or reasons for which they had remained in the camp, rather
than returning home.
My time in Goma and Bukavu might be best described as a
complex interplay of taking and providing cover. On the eve of many
rst meetings in Goma, I received urgent and unexpected phone
calls from Congolese in Nakivale warning me not to disclose their
real whereabouts and advising me instead to tell their friends and
relatives that I had met them in Kampala where they were supposedly
working, studying, or doing business. Importantly, their secret
relationship with Nakivale forced me to conceal dierent aspects
of my visits to Goma and Bukavu as well. My status as a researcher,
the purpose of my visit, my business, and interest in Uganda (and
Nakivale), the nature of my relationship with their friends and
relatives, and the circumstances in which I had met them all suddenly
became sensitive conversation topics. In addition, most Nakivale
inhabitants had not told their contacts in DRC much about me.
Some of them were aware that I was a researcher (in Nakivale), but
others were not and deliberately so. Often, and especially in the
beginning, I had to invent and fabricate stories on the spot, trying to
remain true to my identity as a researcher without jeopardizing the
covers of my friends in Nakivale. I was better prepared for Bukavu,
having had extensive conversations with Nakivale refugees in advance
to netune my narratives. With most direct contacts in Bukavu, I was
allowed to be open about their conditions in the camp and about my
own position as a researcher. However, suspicion about my motives
and identity often remained and were admittedly mutual, certainly
on the rst meeting. I was ‘a friend at home’ but also simultaneously
an unknown researcher, and I would often rst test the water to
learn how much they knew about me and their contact in Nakivale
– something which the other party would often do as well. Evidently,
this sometimes created an atmosphere of mystery and distrust, which
was not always resolved in the end.
During my time with Faruq in Bukavu, the challenges in
upholding the fabricated reality he had been trying to maintain for
more than a year of absence were manifold. In general, Uganda was
seen as a country with a low cost of living and many opportunities
for study and business. A few of Faruq’s friends had gone to and
come back from Uganda with protable returns, and the pressure
for Faruq to perform the same trajectory was high. Thus, while
Faruq had been living on his parents’ nancial reserves after having
outlived his own, returning with empty pockets was not an option
for the, albeit unsuccessful, ‘businessman’ he claimed he was. When
his parents later on gently refused to support any more expenditures,
Faruq risked not only losing his cover, but also his reputation.
Faruq had a lot of friends, and wherever we came, his desire to
party combined with the social pressure to buy everyone a ‘happy
return’ drink and show o his acquired wealth gradually infringed
on my own pockets. After his parents decided to cut their support,
I agreed on a daily allowance during our two weeks so he could
make small errands and buy a few beers in the evenings. Admittedly,
the issue of money was recurrent in our daily conversations and
arguments – and posed some dilemmas. Faruq’s parents disapproved
of his choice to return to Uganda after the celebration of their 50th
wedding anniversary. Providing further nancial support during
our stay enabled Faruq to largely support his fabricated stories of
being a businessman in Kampala in front of his friends in Bukavu –
which no doubt his parents found problematic as well. However, the
possibility existed that if and when Faruq lost his protective cover,
my own would be fractured as well. The money secretly provided to
Faruq also allowed me to partly conceal my intentions since people
did not so easily question Faruq’s activities in Uganda or imagine
that they related to my research on refugee issues.11 Usual suspicions
related to the ‘public secret’ of Congolese staying in refugee camps
and/or seeking resettlement in Uganda did not apply here. Faruq
was successfully enacting his fabricated story by spending the money
he had supposedly earned in Uganda. Further, given coincidental
linkages between Faruq, his friends, and local contacts of another
Nakivale inhabitant, I could not risk the personal stories of both
Congolese refugees being shared among each other’s social networks.
Even with one another, Nakivale inhabitants maintain a great deal
of secrecy over the reasons that took them to Uganda. In the end,
of course, researchers are as much guided by personal as by ethical
or practical choices in the eld. Maybe this relates to what Simmel
(1950: 347-348) wrote about secret societies’ “protective character as
an external quality” and “the internal quality of reciprocal condence
among its members – the very specic trust that they are capable of
keeping silent.” While we were by no means a “secret society”, Faruq
and I were trusted companions, bound to each other by the secret we
shared and had agreed to protect.
Yet, “secrecy is always somewhat like gambling” as Herzfeld
put it (2009: 136; see also Malaby 2003). On our rst day in Bukavu,
Faruq conded in me that his best friend Umukoro probably knew
the truth about his stay in Uganda but would not reveal it openly.
Whether Umukoro (or others, for that matter) suspected Faruq
to be an ocially registered refugee processing for resettlement, I
never found out. If this had been the case, the “public secret” would
have related as much to Faruq’s personal secret as to the general,
public, awareness among Congolese citizens that many compatriots
in Uganda are in one way or another connected to the camps. Yet
evidently, either one of us making inquiries of the other would
have contained the risk of exposing Faruq, thus openly revealing
his secret to the other. Risk and secrecy are closely related here:
“Secrecy engenders risk insofar as concealment entails the possibility
of unwelcome revelation” (Jones 2014: 54). The inherent protective
character (see also Herzfeld 2009: 136) of maintaining secrecy over
people’s doings and whereabouts in Uganda moreover added to the
fear of revelation, engendering a constant feeling of risking one’s
reputation and security.
For almost all my respondents in Nakivale, shame surrounding
“refugee life” played a role in the decision not to disclose their real
location, and to feign a reality that was much more “acceptable”
in DRC. Opinions and attitudes in Goma and Bukavu about
Congolese presence in refugee settings indeed ranged from sympathy
and understanding to stark incomprehension. Even Nakivale
inhabitants who feared being persecuted across the border by the
actors that had made them leave did not always engender sympathy
or understanding among Congolese in Goma and Bukavu. Diering
views on, and experiences with, the political instability and economic
insecurity in DRC were signicant here.
The general image presented of Goma by refugees in Nakivale
was that of a theatrical (literally, “like in a movie”) battleground where
helicopters and ying bullets were part of the everyday. Many said
they had left the city or its surroundings at the time when the CNDP
(2006-2009) and later the M23 (2012-2013) were at their strongest.12
The imageries of Bukavu were less daunting but still lled with
metaphors and representations of profound danger and insecurity.
While insecurity and incidences of violence are certainly still very
much present as part of daily life in and around Goma and Bukavu,
urban denizens who have remained in these cities often tended to
nuance this image of the “battleground,” certainly in combination
with views on Congolese refugees living abroad. The comment that
the latter group had not “resisted” enough was more than sporadically
made. If they had taken ight for security reasons, what are all the
other inhabitants of Goma then still doing there? And why had those
who ed not come back after M23 was defeated? In Bukavu, one of
my contacts sighed that he failed to understand why his brother lives
in Nakivale: “He told me that he ed the war. Enitan, he doesn’t like
war, I don’t understand why. We are used to it here.”13 As a journalist,
Enitan had been advised by a colleague to leave Uvira and later also
Bukavu when the threats he had been receiving from high ocials
related to his writings on sensitive political issues escalated.14 Yet, the
comment of his older brother in Bukavu reected a feeling towards
Congolese refugees that many others seemed to share.
On a two-day trip to one of the areas around the city, I
visited a local leader and former inhabitant of Nakivale. I had been
introduced to him by a relative of his who still lived in the camp. A
few years ago, he had gone back to DRC to inherit the authority of
his father, who had passed away. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “Is the
image you get in Nakivale about Congo the same as you experience
here?” The local leader was referring to the horrible and traumatic
(life) stories people would often recite in my presence, in addition to
the violent imageries (pictures, videos, stories) of massacres, attacks,
and insecurities in eastern DRC that were circulating on social media
and continuously watched and sent around in WhatsApp groups
established by Nakivale inhabitants. “Of course not!” he exclaimed.
“It’s completely exaggerated. When refugees see a muzungu, you
need to say that Congo is unsafe so that you might help them with
your case.” A Congolese researcher who had accompanied me on the
trip agreed from his own eldwork experience in Nakivale that camp
narratives on DRC’s violent “battleground” were overly emphasized,
although he also admitted to often downplay the gravity of insecurity
in the country. Later that evening, the three of us (the local leader,
the Congolese researcher, and myself) sat down in a bar for a drink
when a loud and armed argument between two FDLR militants in
the street suddenly pushed dozens of people inside. As clients ducked
behind walls and under tables, the local leader quickly ordered
the door closed and locked to keep any armed actors outside. The
insecurity around the bar forced us to return immediately through
the backdoor and take a hidden path that led us to the house of our
host. It is certainly true that in Nakivale, “performance narratives”
of victimhood, vulnerability, war trauma, and insecurities in DRC
are widespread and moreover constitute a way of navigating the
humanitarian system in the camp, certainly in the presence of white
visitors (see also Ingunn 2017). However, experiences of violence and
eects of political instability had in fact also led many Congolese to
leave their country, which the local leader also acknowledged.
A few relatives who were more sympathetic to the choices of
their family members in Nakivale argued that there was a general need
for more compassion regarding their compatriots abroad. Others felt
that Congolese refugees had lacked the “courage” to “resist” and live
with the reality of political and economic insecurity. Some interpreted
the failure of return as a sign that they were too ashamed to come
back, after having exchanged a respectful urban life for deplorable
conditions in makeshift refugee camps, which was thought of as a
signicant loss of prestige and social status. The risk of ‘coming
back home with nothing,’ without diplomas, money, or veriable
work experience, was indeed a serious worry for many Congolese
in Nakivale. They knew their acquaintances in Congo to be getting
married, promoted, and expanding their businesses, while they were
“only waiting for life to begin” as someone put it.15 The longer they
stayed in Nakivale, the more they felt the need to fabricate realities for
their acquaintances in DRC, and the harder it became to return. The
tendency to cultivate memories of violence and insecurity in eastern
DRC, moreover, added to many people’s traumas and convictions
that Congo was not yet a safe place to return.
Apart from being represented as a cheap country containing
opportunities for schooling and business, Uganda was also broadly
perceived as a “facilitator” for refugee resettlement. From 2014
to 2018, the Congolese departure statistics of resettlement in
Uganda are increasing, respectively: 917, 2705, 5815, 1821, 3751.16
Resettlement for Congolese in Uganda is mostly handled in Nakivale
(in comparison with other camps),17 and consequently, one of
the reasons why this camp was most frequented by those seeking
bulaya (also in comparison with other camps in the broader region).
Comments by Goma and Bukavu inhabitants on how Congolese
camp refugees had lacked a certain spirit of “resistance,” were often
linked with and reinforced by additional references to the increasing
number of Congolese leaving DRC to seek resettlement in refugee
camps. Those entering resettlement processes abroad were frequently
viewed as preferring “the easy life” of Europe, Canada, or America,
instead of trying to struggle their way out of economic insecurity
and “resisting” or nding a way to live with political instability by
remaining in DRC.
Trying your luck in a resettlement procedure was also a venture
ridiculed by many in DRC. Most people knew that these were long
procedures that often required you to stay in the camp for several
years. Resettlement is true, on principle, the result of a long and
rigorous procedure. Applicants can be found eligible if they suer
from serious insecurity both in the host and home country, includes
those with a severe illness, family members abroad, and whose stay in
Nakivale has become so protracted they cannot be expected to return
anymore (UNHCR 2011). However, apart from having a genuine
concern, many Congolese were aware that a good narrative and at
times, some “pocket facilitation” could expedite the process. An
artist in Bukavu called this mentality “L’esclavage” (slavery): the all-
consuming idea that Congo was lost and that economic prosperity
and political stability could only be found in “the west.” “For most
of these people, they cannot be convinced otherwise anymore. Many
young people, but others too.”18 Faruq later assured me that, although
some people in Bukavu might nd such aspirations ridiculous, “from
the moment their relatives arrive in bulaya, you will see their pictures
being raised on the wall.”19
Yet, a general depreciation of resettlement aspirations was
one of the reasons why some Congolese had left the country quietly
without any communication. It was in this manner that a young
woman in Nakivale showed herself relieved that I had not been able
to nd her uncle in Bukavu: “They don’t understand why we are
here.”20 After a protracted 5-year stay in Nakivale, she and her parents
were still waiting for an interview with the UNHCR protection
ocer. “We make up stories, that’s what we do. We thought we would
be here for six months, that’s what we had heard. Unfortunately, we
are still here.”21 Apart from distorting reality, “the art of silence” is a
powerful technique in strategies of secrecy and concealment (Simmel
1950: 349). While some fabricate “acceptable” stories to share with
their acquaintances in DRC publicly, the young woman explained
that she had cut communication entirely as a strategy to hide her
doings and whereabouts in Uganda. The silences between Nakivale
and eastern DRC are indeed profound, and even when “stayees” were
aware of their friends’ and relatives’ presence in Nakivale, they had
very little information on how people lived there or what happened
in these camps.
Further, borrowing from Walter Benjamin’s argument on
truth, Taussig similarly argues that “the secret is not destroyed through
exposure, but subject to a revelation that does justice to it.” (1999:
8). In other words, revealing a secret does not destroy it, but instead
reinforces and magnies its power. On one of my rst days in the city,
I met in a restaurant with the brother of someone living in Nakivale.
During our conversation, he admitted that urban inhabitants, in
general, did not think much of Congolese residing in refugee camps
abroad. “People here look down on them. It’s like they didn’t resist.
That they are weak. And [refugees] are ashamed. Many do not say that
they are [in the camps], they leave quietly. It’s like lowering yourself as
a respectable urban citizen to a life of suering in a refugee camp.”22
As we were discussing the urban sentiments towards Congolese
camp refugees, the aforementioned local leader from an area outside
the city entered the restaurant and was immediately recognized by
my interlocutor. Coincidentally, the leader happened to be one of my
contacts as well, being a distant relative of someone in Nakivale.23 We
sat down for a talk during which the local leader revealed without any
shame that he too was a former resident of Nakivale. As we engaged,
my other interlocutor turned silent and barely uttered a word for the
rest of the conversation. He later conded to me that he was stunned
by how a man of such a reputation, being highly respected in the
city, had been so open and frank about his former refugee status. Not
many returnees would have done the same, he argued. The awkward
reaction of my interlocutor to the revelation of the local leader’s
former refugee status made powerfully clear that, amidst a public
awareness that Congolese in Uganda are possibly connected to the
camps, this would usually not be openly articulated in the presence
of a (suspected) returnee. Certainly, the local leader’s revelation did
not destroy this “public secret”. Instead, by revealing that someone
as powerful and well-regarded as himself has also passed through a
refugee camp, the leader complicated collectively-held assumptions
about Congolese refugees in Uganda, thereby adding a new layer of
mystery and confusion around this taboo topic. In a sense, then, his
revelation magnied the secret’s power.
Interestingly, while the local leader had been honest about his
camp history to my interlocutor, he had not openly shared the reasons
that had brought him there. Together with ve other families, the
local leader had sold property and belongings to pay a resettlement
broker from the city for a direct ticket to Canada, without ever
needing to pass the camps.24 After the broker had betrayed the
families upon their arrival in Entebbe (Uganda), shame and loss of
nancial resources had brought them to Nakivale to live o rations
and free agricultural land.25
This research brief has presented a condensed and early analysis
of dynamics of secrecy and concealment in relation to the circular
movements of Congolese refugees between Nakivale and eastern
DRC. This is, of course, only one area in which bottom-up processes
of (protective) silence, anonymity and secrecy in Nakivale were
found to be practiced and enacted. The interplay between the
importance of being visible on certain levels and to certain actors,
while simultaneously generating dierent forms of invisibility is
particularly relevant in refugee contexts. Refugee policies and top-
down strategies often involve the high visibility of large groups
of people as well as policies of individual anonymity. This high
visibility can help or interrupt refugees’ daily, individual strategies
of anonymity that enable them to maneuver within the system and
appropriate it for their own uses and protection.
In this paper, the realities that Nakivale’s inhabitants
presented to the “outside world” allow a better understanding of the
role and position of refugee camps in regional conict mobilities.
While scholars now generally agree that return is not an ‘easy x’ that
proclaims the end of displacement, insecurity, and political instability,
the dynamics of secrecy and concealment during displacement that
are discussed in this paper add another layer of complexity to our
understanding of the return process. Fear of losing reputation and
social status ‘back home,’ and of being persecuted abroad resulted in
ruptures of communication and the fabrication of stories thought
to be more “acceptable” for those who had stayed in DRC. Actual
return, therefore, encompassed the risk of losing the protective
cover refugees had created for themselves in an environment and
political/humanitarian regime that is profoundly characterized by
top-down processes of protective anonymity and isolation. While
research on the isolation and seclusion of refugee camps is, rightly,
increasingly being balanced by scholars who emphasize the many
socio-economic and political connections and linkages with their
broader environments (e.g., Jansen 2011, Betts et al. 2014), social
dynamics between camp inhabitants and their compatriots abroad
are rarely part of such analyses. Yet, they constitute an important
reality not to be neglected. Indeed, the practices and strategies of
secrecy and concealment here discussed often provoked a conception
of the refugee camp as a secret, hidden universe. In the case of Faruq,
his time in Bukavu was not only fraught with stress and nancial
diculties, but also severely deepened the disconnection with his
home town and the people he knew. Near the end of our stay, he
proclaimed that this would be his last time ever going back. “When I
return to Uganda, I will now become a real refugee.”26
1 At the current time of eld research, the year in which Nakivale
was ocially established as a refugee settlement is not yet entirely
clear. Numerous oral sources and ocial documents from the 1990s
make mention of 1960, while a smaller number refer to 1962. Large
groups of Rwandan refugees arrived in the area as early as 1959.
Much of the camp’s archives were destroyed during the 1978-79
Kagera War in which Tanzania and Ugandan rebels invaded the
country to oust president Idi Amin from power; other documents
disappeared during the repatriation of Rwandan refugees in the
early nineties.
2 Conversation with a Ugandan, Nakivale, May 2018.
3 See for example the continuous developments around the probe
into the network of former Ugandan Inspector General of Police,
Kale Kayihura (The Daily Monitor, 17 June 2018); and the recent
arrest of 40 Rwandans in Kampala accused of espionage and deport-
ing of Rwandan nationals to Rwanda (SoftPower, 25 July 2019).
4 Apart from Congolese, Nakivale comprises a variety of national-
ities among which are Rwandans, Burundians, Somalis, Eritreans,
Ethiopians and a number of Kenyans, Sudanese and South Suda-
5 My relationships with Congolese inhabitants were much more
personal than with other nationalities at the time of eld research,
which, given the importance of trust in each other on both sides of
the companionship, was important. Further, as a muzungu, I was
advised against crossing the border with Rwandans and Burundians
as their return contained a much greater security risk. My ‘white’
presence would increase our potential visibility to government and
armed actors upon return.
6 A note on secrecy: the paper was proofread by a Congolese par-
ticipant of this research, and whose review of the text was followed
by discussions on, and requests for, increased anonymity. Con-
cerns about anonymity were also raised during a presentation at a
workshop in Gulu (Uganda, July 2019), as well as by the academic
reviewers of this paper. The intricacies of secrecy discussed in this
paper thus also necessitated a layer of mystery to the text itself. All
names mentioned in the paper are ctitious and of Nigerian origin
in order not to mistake people for another Congolese individual
with the same name. Apart from names, details of certain stories
have been altered (places, gender, personal histories, identities), left
out (exact dates in footnotes) or are vaguely formulated where this
does not pose a problem for the academic integrity of the paper,
or the narrative as a whole. It should therefore be mentioned that
only a few women participated in this research, most research
participants were men. Further, one of the camp refugees whose
relatives I met in DRC does not live in Nakivale, but in Kakuma
Refugee Camp in Kenya. We met a couple of years ago in Kakuma
during research for my master’s thesis and stayed in touch. Upon
hearing of my travel plans, this person put me in touch with family
in DRC. References to conversations with both parties have been
anonymized for family reasons to such an extent that they appear to
concern a Nakivale inhabitant. Apart from this one person, every-
one else is registered in Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda. In
regard to the introduction and conclusion sections, no details have
been altered, apart from people’s names.
7 The trips to Goma and Bukavu were made with additional
funding from a VLIR-UOS ‘Global Minds’ fund.
8 Conversation with Congolese in Nakivale, June 2018.
9 Conversation with Faruq in Nakivale, May 2018.
10 The right to freedom of movement for refugees in Uganda
ocially exists since the national 2006 Refugee Act.
11 While there is not much room to discuss the situation in
Nakivale here, Faruq of course relied on two dierent narratives
to perform credibility as a businessman in Bukavu, and a war
refugee in Nakivale.
12 The Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP)
and its successor Mouvement du 23-Mars (M23) were two Con-
golese tutsi-led rebel movements in the Kivu region. See e.g. Jason
Stearns (2012), From CNDP to M23: the evolution of an armed
movement in eastern Congo.
13 Conversation with relative, Bukavu, 2018.
14 Conversation with friend, Bukavu, 2018.
15 Conversation with Congolese in Nakivale, June 2018.
16 UNHCR Resettlement Data Finder,
17 Widely known among government, humanitarian and refu-
gee actors in the camp.
18 Conversation with an artist in Bukavu, 2018.
19 Conversation with Faruq in Bukavu, 2018. It must be added
here that most of the friends and relatives I met were not the less
auent inhabitants of Goma and Bukavu. A researcher from
Bukavu explained that seeking resettlement abroad is considered
a more acceptable option for poor people (personal communica-
tion with Dr. Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka in Kampala, 28/06/2019).
20 Conversation with Congolese in Nakivale, December 2018.
21 Conversation with Congolese in Nakivale, December 2018.
22 Conversation with relative in DRC, 2018.
23 It was not a coincidence that he walked in the restaurant. A
researcher and mutual friend knew that the local leader was in
town and had told him where to nd me.
24 Stories and accusations of resettlement fraud are widespread
in Uganda, as in other host countries in the region.
25 Refugees are accorded a plot of land upon their arrival in the
camp to encourage “self-reliance”.
26 Conversation with Faruq in Bukavu, 2018.
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A note of gratitude to an anonymous Congolese research participant, professor dr. Koen Vlassenroot, dr. David
Mwambari and dr. Naomi Pendle, for their much-appreciated comments on the paper. Thanks also to the remarks
given at the workshop on ‘the politics of return’ in Gulu, July 2019, on a presentation that was based on this paper.
Many thanks to the researchers in Goma and Bukavu who provided crucial orientation during my stay, help with
paperwork and research permits, indispensable insights and analyses, and, at times, a much appreciated beer in
the evening: Irène Bahati, Vianney Cukas Muderhwa, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda, Christian Chiza Kashurha (in
Bukavu), Chrispin Mvano and Olivier Ndoole (in Goma). Final credits to Sara Weschler for terrific language editing.
This work was supported by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research, a Global Challenges Research
Fund collaboration of the Economic and Social Research Council; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
— With funding by —
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
This article discusses methodological challenges in refugee studies through a case study of interactions between refugees and host-population in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda. The article suggest that one solution to the challenges identified is to make use of James C. Scott’s theory of private and public transcripts to form an argument that public stories of victimhood are utilized strategically as a weapon of the weak to navigate the terrain of Nakivale. Victimhood is one of many social roles among the actors in Nakivale and the stories become performance narratives with shifting roles depending on the audience. To shift from a social pose as a hardworking refugee in everyday life to a public presentation of self as a refugee with uttermost needs to the researcher is a tactic move. We can successfully read and interpret how the actors in Nakivale navigate in a competitive terrain by listening to the meaning of the public stories, and thus also understand the powerful narrative(s) across the different groups that live within the settlement.
Full-text available
Split return is a common strategy of repatriation among refugees and migrants. Facing great uncertainty, both economically and security-wise, households disperse in two or more locations in order to minimize risk. The phenomenon is well-known in migration studies and in studies of return from the distant diaspora, but is studied less among the overwhelming majority residing in countries neighbouring their own. This article draws on experiences from Afghanistan, comparing split return to similar strategies in migration generally and in refugee situations specifically. It suggests that while splits are conceived as a temporary measure, they often become a lasting form of life. Opportunities for split return are often crucial for the willingness to start repatriation, as well as for the sustainability of the household's economy upon return. The article develops the concept of split return in relation to contextual factors, intensity of networks (at origin and in exile) and household composition.
Secrecy, paradoxically, is a social fact; as such, it must be performed in order to be realized. This article is a programmatic attempt to explore the semiotics of secrecy as revealed through the interaction of architectonics, spatiality, and social interaction. Gestural secretiveness reproduces socially sanctioned patterns of concealment also embodied in the built environment; these social dimensions also inform local interpretations of legal devices designed to guarantee privacy. On the international stage, moreover, they are transformed into devices for the concealment of potential national embarrassments. As the author demonstrates using materials from Greece, Italy, and Thailand, the practical effects of secrecy - a more flexible construct than the dichotomy of public and private - are revealingly inscribed, at various concentric levels of social identification, on the material landscape of inhabited space, and represent a necessary dimension of adapting urban structures to a human scale.
Questions over durable solutions in the social, political and security terrain of southern Sudan and northern Uganda invite recognition that simple delineations between “home” and “exile” are inadequate for an understanding of displacement and refugee status. Contrary to existing policies that assume an unproblematic repatriation of Sudanese refugees from their protracted exile in Uganda to a “post conflict” Sudan, the emerging reality is that multiple strategies of survival, self-protection and development are being employed. This paper explores the variety and ingenuity with which refugees address challenges to livelihoods, identities and security with a portfolio of responses which render the notion of a straightforward cross-border movement “home” largely notional. Drawing on long-term research in a number of Sudanese refugee settlements in northern Uganda since the mid-1990s, this article emphasizes the need to recognize that durable solutions should not be constructed as single and fixed in contexts where individuals and groups may continue to migrate so as to meet their family's collective needs. It also invites recognition of the extent and ways in which re-crossing international borders has particular meaning for refugees given their specific legal status, as well as the additional relevance and significance of physical, social and symbolic boundaries in such a context.
It must be added here that most of the friends and relatives I met were not the less affluent inhabitants of Goma and Bukavu. A researcher from Bukavu explained that seeking resettlement abroad is considered a more acceptable option for poor people (personal communication with Dr
Conversation with Faruq in Bukavu, 2018. It must be added here that most of the friends and relatives I met were not the less affluent inhabitants of Goma and Bukavu. A researcher from Bukavu explained that seeking resettlement abroad is considered a more acceptable option for poor people (personal communication with Dr. Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka in Kampala, 28/06/2019).
  • Bibliography
  • Alexander Betts
  • Louise Bloom
  • Josiah Kaplan
  • Naohiko Omata
Conversation with Faruq in Bukavu, 2018. BIBLIOGRAPHY Betts, Alexander, Louise Bloom, Josiah Kaplan and Naohiko Omata. 2014. Refugee economies : rethinking popular assumptions. Oxford: Humanitarian Innovation Project.
Hoping for peace, afraid of war: the dilemmas of repatriation and belonging on the borders of Uganda and South Sudan
  • Lucy Hovil
Hovil, Lucy. 2010. Hoping for peace, afraid of war: the dilemmas of repatriation and belonging on the borders of Uganda and South Sudan (research paper no.196).