Congolese stream to new UNHCR refugee camp in Rwanda

Telling the Human Story, 9 August 2012

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Justine Mukeshimana, 47 sits with two of her six children in Rwanda's Kigeme camp some 20,000 people have fled from Congo to Rwanda since this spring.

KIGEME REFUGEE CAMP, Rwanda, 9 August -- The villagers feared the soldiers because they robbed and raped and recruited children for their war. It didn't matter which armed faction they represented a plethora of cadres came and went. All brought weapons and conjured panic when they walked through Kibarizo community in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Masisi province.

Like others in Kibarizu, 20-year-old Veronique* knew the soldiers stopped anyone in their path to demand money. If the victims had none, they would be beaten or worse. So the people of Kibarizu developed a system to survive the passing armies. Their method consisted of a single obligation: The first to be targeted must speak or shout or scream as loudly as possible. The victim must say: " 'They are here. They are here,' it is a warning for the rest of us,"she said.

It was barely a defense but it was all they had.

For now, Veronique has escaped the cadre's horrors. But still she thinks of the soldiers while sitting in a small tent in UNHCR's Kigeme refugee camp. Her dwelling is made of plastic sheeting nailed to a pinewood frame and anchored to the ground by tree limbs and rope. It is one of several hundred houses all nestled side-by-side on the side of a steep Rwandan hill. It is safe now so Veronique can remember. At times her lips quiver when she speaks. She stares at the white walls or down on the dirt floor and recalls moments that defined her life's trajectory.

Warnings provided small consolation after the cadres become violent. The victims shouted the existence of marauding gunmen, but those who sought to avoid their fate made every effort not to exist. They blended into their homes or into the bush. This willful disappearance more often than not set up a hopeless choice. "If we stay in our houses they can take our money or rape us," Veronique said. "But if we run and the groups see us hiding they can shoot us and kill us. "

The impossible decisions closed in on her. The threats became specific; she feared rape and her younger brother feared recruitment. Soldiers had already told 15-year-old Mapenzi* that he must join them.

And so on May Day they fled, knowing that they were the lucky ones. Veronique's mother, four other bothers and two sisters were left behind. The family simply couldn't afford the $10 per person motorbike fare to the border. And while it was possible to walk to Rwanda, doing so meant exposure to bandits and other armed militias who also traversed the famished road. "My mother wanted me to take all of my brothers and sisters along with me," Veronique said. "I sensed that it was the best thing to do. But I could only leave with one."

Veronique was not alone. Since this spring, some 20,000 Congolese crossed the Congo/Rwanda border fleeing conflict. A steady stream of refugees continue to arrive. They register with UNHCR at Nkamira transit centre near the Congo border. UNHCR and its partners have erected a new camp at Kigeme to accommodate the newcomers. Everywhere this burgeoning community, the government of Rwanda, UNHCR and its partners are working. More than 11,400 people now inhabit the new facility.

Sabrina Amirat a protection officer on emergency mission for UNHCR walks up and down the terraced hills speaking with new arrivals. She has been in the camp for barely a week. A woman smiles at her and holds her hand. A family greets her. Another woman confides her fear that her husband will come and take away her children now that he knows she was raped in Congo.

There are meetings with youth, coordination meetings, meetings with such partners as the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Oxfam and others. Work ends well into the evening and trudging up and down the hillside for hours at times leaves her with cramps in her legs. But what is important now is to be seen, known and trusted. Amirat gives off an aura of generosity. "It is normal," she says. "I don't consider the people here just as refugees. They are people like me before anything else."

There is much to do and Amirat also acts as a kind of field marshal overseeing the buzz of activity at the camp. The sounds of hammers, hoes, axes and saws can be heard everywhere along the terraced hillsides. She points at a latrine that has been constructed too close to the dirt stairway that lines the hillside like a long accordion. "You can see what is happening in this toilet," she says pointing to one latrine in which the occupant can be seen from outside. "We have to fix this."

Amirat also knows that despite the relative safety of the camp, fear lingers. She knows that no normal human being would be immediately transformed after enduring the terrors of war. Gender based violence will likely continue. Women need counseling and protection. Unaccompanied minors need to be reunited with their families. Priority for easy-to-access housing must be given to the physically disabled and the elderly.

At 3:30 pm a clutch of buses arrive from Nkamira transit centre and park along the hillside. The new arrivals gather on the side of the hill as a man with a megaphone provides information about the new camp. One by one the names of heads of families are called out. Each is assigned a new home.

Justine Mukeshimana, 47 waits patiently in the crowd. Then her name is called out. She and her six children fled Bihamwe in Congo's Masisi province and arrived to Rwanda on June 9th. But in the chaos of the escape a seventh child -- her oldest son Gaston Gaboyimanzi -- was separated from the rest of her family.

Today Mukeshimana is lucky. Housing construction is now moving apace with the new arrivals. UNHCR and its partners have built some 67 housing units on this day. And so everyone on the bus will have a home tonight. With her children in tow, she walks along the dirt road towards her new dwelling. And then she sees Gaston. She was expecting to reunite with him but still the moment is a form of bliss. The two haven't seen each other for months. They embrace quietly before heading to their new home.

Seven people will live in the small house. Gaston has chosen to stay with friends so as to provide the rest of the family more space. Despite the fact they have only a single mattress and a separate mat to sleep on, Mukeshimana's smile is nothing less than brilliant.

*names changed for protection reasons

Greg Beals in Kigeme refugee camp