War’s Devastation Continues for Refugees in Tanzania
story and photos by Richard Lord
War, like wildfire, forces everyone in its path to fight it or to flee. For women and children, fleeing warfare often means becoming long-term refugees.
Having fled in the late 1990s from warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the refugees in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania had crossed the border expecting to return home in a few months. Instead, some 15 years later, they are still waiting for change.
Many have witnessed things that no one should ever see. They have felt too much and feared too much, being forced to seek refuge in another nation to escape a devastating war. But instead of finding relief, they escaped death only to enter a place that feels like a prison.
These Congolese refugees did nothing to deserve their fate. They were not criminals or rebels or fighters on any side. Instead, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, whole families had to run for their lives. They were primarily women and children, and, as survivors in the Nyarugusu Camp, they lead difficult, unfulfilling lives.
Life in a Refugee Camp
In some ways, the refugee camp resembles a prison. To enter, a visitor must pass through two security checks. A barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp is meant to keep refugees inside, while blocking access to outsiders.
Residents claim that the only food they receive is supplied by aid organizations. Every two weeks, small portions of fl our and corn come from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to serve as the ration for three people. The Tanzanian government prohibits farming and other economic activity in the camp without its permission. So, to complement their meager food rations, many residents escape from the camp for a day and work in a nearby village in exchange for food. Then they bring the food back to the camp to feed themselves and their children.
One refugee, Salima Balud, age 39, was caught leaving the camp at least 10 times. Each time, the testimony of community leaders won her release from custody. Now she leaves two or three times a week to work for food in a nearby village. “I don’t go farther than the village,” explained this married mother of seven, whose children range in age from two to 22. “Many people go to Dar es Salaam,” she says, referring to the Tanzanian capital. “But, I don’t have the money for a bus ticket.”
Balud is a nurse who occasionally works part-time in the camp hospital. “I need to work more,” she says. “I want to study more to be an even better nurse.” In 1997, it took her three weeks to get to Nyarugusu Camp from her DR Congo village. Back home, she had not only witnessed the murder of a friend and a neighbor but had watched as government troops killed her older brother. She had seen a family being locked in a house that was then set on fire, with family members being shot when they tried to escape. She had witnessed pregnant women being raped, after which the attackers would cut open the woman’s belly, grab the fetus, and throw it up in the air.
Elizabeth Michael, age 50, was a farmer back home, but now she has cancer and cannot work. She lives with her seven children, aged 10 to 20, in a 90-square-foot house in the camp. She and her children fled the DR Congo after witnessing teenage girls being raped and her neighbors—then her husband—being killed. She and her children traveled for two months to reach Nyarugusu. Now her children are traders. They leave the camp to make purchases in the market of a neighboring village, returning to the camp to sell the goods they bought.
A Church for Refugees
The United Methodist Church has a strong presence in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. Pastor Mukalay Dieudonne Nehemie, 57, was a United Methodist lay leader in Kaimbima, DR Congo, before fleeing to Tanzania in 1998. “I saw many people killed in my village,” he said. “The government said they were killing rebels. But the women and children I saw being massacred were certainly not rebels.”
In the Nyarugusu Camp, Pastor Nehemie pursued studies at a theology school sponsored by Africa Ministry Network. After completing the multi-denominational course, he was ordained as a deacon. His parish is one of three United Methodist congregations in the camp, which has 5,000 United Methodists among its 64,000 occupants.
“Our role here lies in starting churches,” explained the Rev. Mutwale Ntambo, a Congolese missionary and the mission superintendent working with The United Methodist Church in Tanzania (UMCT). “We don’t have the money to do anything else. We have churches without buildings and pastors without salaries.” The UMCT is a mission outreach of the North Katanga Annual Conference.
Adjacent to the Nyarugusu Camp, where the great majority of residents are from the DR Congo, is the Mtabila Camp, which is home to 38,378 Hutu refugees from Burundi. Mtabila Camp is scheduled to close by the end of 2012. Some Burundis have begun to resettle in Nyarugusu, where they are intermixed with the Congolese. Relations are not warm, but there is no open fighting.
“In our church, both groups are welcome,” Pastor Nehemie explained. “They come together freely. They may not be friends outside the church, but here they come together naturally. This is a place of peace.”
In the village where she and her family farmed in the DR Congo, Safi Abwe, now 38, saw her parents, along with many children, being killed by the military. The soldiers also raped five women while she watched. Escaping the bloodshed in 1997, she is now a single mom with seven children between the ages of two and 18. “I want to work,” she explained, “but there are no jobs here. I would love to start an orphanage.”
“My life is very, very hard here,” she continued. “Many people have escaped to go to Dar, but I have no possibility of working there. It may be very bad here, but I think it could be worse in Dar.”
A sister and brother—Yvonne Kisimba, 19, and Joachim Kabwe, 15—fled their home in the Katanga region of the DR Congo in 1998, coming to the refugee camp in Tanzania with their parents and four siblings. “They were killing people in our village,” Kisimba explained. “We fled during a battle. I was five and my brother was one. We didn’t know what we were doing or where we were going when we ran. It took us a day to arrive in Kigoma (Tanzania). From there we were taken to the refugee camp.”
“It’s a horrible life in the camps,” her brother Kabwe added. “There is no freedom. You can’t leave. And, when there is food, it’s bad. When I was 11, I left and came to Dar by myself.”
With no connections in Dar es Salaam, Kabwe roamed the bus station, wondering what to do. There, he met some friendly Congolese residents who took him into their
home, where he lives today with their two children, aged three and one. This made his sister’s relocation considerably easier. She went directly to the family that took her brother in.
Kisimba and Kabwe’s father and one brother remain in the Nyarugusu Camp. Their mother died and their other siblings are in the DR Congo. In the capital city, neither Kabwe nor Kisimba has found work. Having no money to pay school fees, they have nothing to do. Still, they feel that their home in Dar es Salaam is an improvement over the refugee camp.
“In the camp, we had nothing to do and the little food we had was horrible,” Kisimba explained. “Here, there are possibilities. And the food is enough and it is good.”
In 2007, the Ekendji sisters—Fatuma, Diane, and Leonie—left their home in Uvera, DR Congo, after their village was attacked. “Our uncle was killed by our neighbors,” said Diane, age 18. “We watched the killing through the window of our house.” In the course of the attack on their village, the sisters were separated from their parents and three other siblings. They still do not know what happened to the rest of their family.
“There is no real border between DR Congo and Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika,” explained Fatuma, age 21. “So we decided to escape into Tanzania. We had heard many horror stories about the refugee camps, so we decided to come directly to Dar. We have been here ever since.”
In Dar es Salaam, the three sisters sleep together in one room in a private house. They use an outdoor toilet. Fatuma is the primary financial provider, earning money by doing
casual and domestic labor. Diane occasionally weaves hair. Leonie, 20, who completed secondary school, wants to study; but she has not found work and has no money for school fees.
The separation of refugee families is common. Patrick Iluba Ndoba, age 27, fled his home in Kivu, DR Congo, in 2003. After seeing a friend and many other people killed, he fled with his parents but was separated from them during the journey and has never seen them since. “Everyone knew that the small boat near my village would go to Kigoma,” he said, “so I got in.” His plan was to return to the DR Congo as soon as it was safe, but that has not happened. Instead, five months ago, he fled to Dar es Salaam.
“The conditions in the refugee camp were very hard to bear,” Ndoba continued. “I survived by dreaming of the day when I would be back in the DR Congo. But I was doing nothing with my life but dreaming. Finally, I realized that I had to get out of there if I was going to get on with my life.”
Life for Ndoba has not been easy in Tanzania’s capital. He was able to find a place to live in a house built by The United Methodist Church in Tanzania (UMCT). But, not having found a job, he remains fully dependent on UMCT. Yet Ndoba still hopes for the opportunity to build the life he wants. Opportunities are relative. Goals may be simple or lofty. The refugees in Dar es Salaam pray for decent housing, regular employment, and other basic necessities of life.
Elizabeth Michael, the cancer victim who remains at the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, has simpler goals. “Maybe,” she says, “if my children went to Dar es Salaam, they could send me money. All that I want is a few kitchen utensils and a roof that doesn’t leak.”
Richard Lord is a freelance photographer and journalist based in Virginia, but with many ties to New York City.
Safi Abwe (left) and Salima Balud show the UNHCR two-week flour and corn food ration for three people in the Nyarugusu refugee Camp, Kigoma, Tanzania. Photo: Richard Lord
Pastor Mukalay Dieudonne Nehemie stands outside parish 1, one of three United Methodist congregations in the Nyarugusu Camp. He was a United Methodist lay leader in Kaimbima, DR Congo, before his family fled to Tanzania in 1998. Photo: Richard Lord
The Ekendji sisters, Fatuma, Diane, and Leonie, originally from Uvera, DR Congo, were separated from the rest of their family in 2007 when their village was attacked. Hearing horror stories about the refugee camps along the border, they made their way to Dar es Salaam, but they have not found enough work to support themselves. Photo: Richard Lord
Elizabeth Michael traveled for two months with her children to get to the safety of the Nyarugusu camp. Now she battles cancer and says that what she really needs to ease her burdens a little are a few good kitchen utensils and a roof that doesn’t leak. Photo: Richard Lord
Nyarugusu Refugee Camp
Approximately 65 miles (a three-hour drive) northwest of the nearest town—Kigoma, Tanzania, and 15 miles west of the Burundi border.
9 square miles
: Approximately 64,000 individuals
62,500 from DR Congo and 1,500 from Burundi
Age distribution of residents:
Facilities present in the camp:
• 9 pre-schools: enrollment 2,509
• 12 primary schools: enrollment 19,487
• 4 secondary schools: enrollment 7,771
• 715 teachers in all the schools
• Two hospitals with a 256-bed capacity
• Three additional health posts
• The health facilities in the two camps
(Nyarugusu and Mtabila) also provide free medical services to the host communities.
Source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees