War shatters Congolese teenager's dreams
COTONOU, Benin (UNHCR) - In June 1997, 14-year-old Roger walked calmly to school in Brazzaville's oppressive afternoon heat. Roger had just finished lunch with his parents and his two younger brothers in the family's villa located in a residential quarter of the Republic of the Congo's capital. He had vaguely listened to the table conversation about the unrest in his country, but the adult talk did not hold much interest for him.
Kidding around with his school buddies, he was waiting for class to begin when machine gun fire erupted in the neighbourhood. Within a few minutes, the students were sheltered in a classroom, but as the shooting intensified, the teachers decided to evacuate them to a safer place.
As the unrest swept across the city, wild rumours spread through the neighbourhoods, causing panic among the population. Houses were burned, bodies lined the streets, and frightened civilians hugged the walls in an attempt to reach safety as the deafening sounds of war reverberated in the background.
For Roger, his schoolmates and teachers, the only possible escape route was through the nearby railway station. Miraculously, a train was about to leave as they arrived. They were able to hoist themselves into wagons already overcrowded with fleeing civilians just as the train pulled away for an unknown destination, making its way through whizzing bullets, the smell of gunfire, and dark smoke from the burning cars and houses.
Hoping they would be able to return home quickly, the group alighted at the first stop, a village in the bush. The terrorised students, hungry and thirsty, remained huddled close to each other. The carefree atmosphere of just a few hours ago, the games and laughter, were gone forever.
The rare news they received from Brazzaville was not good. As fighting intensified, the exodus from the capital accelerated. Newcomers to the village were questioned in frantic attempts to find out more about parents, friends and neighbours. And although some families were reunited, the faces of those arriving were generally of anguish and terror.
After two days with no food or shelter, the students and their teachers started on the road to Pointe-Noire, Congo's second-largest city, which had reportedly remained calm. After an exhausting voyage, the port city appeared like a peaceful haven. Local charitable associations provided Roger and his classmates with food and straw mattresses. The teenager was well looked after and attended a French school there.
Less than a year later, the fighting reached Pointe-Noire, triggering yet another exodus. This time, Roger found himself among strangers fleeing towards the Gabonese border. A fisherman agreed to help them escape on his boat. For the next eight days, they braved the waves under the hot sun, with little water and food, facing the terrible anguish of the unknown.
At the end of the journey, Roger, by now 15, was alone in the port of Cotonou in Benin, a country he did not know but where, luckily, French was spoken. Suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, he was brought by the local authorities to the office of the UN refugee agency, where he was registered and cared for.
The UNHCR office in Cotonou tried unsuccessfully to find his family. The teenager was disoriented, lost and physically weak. Enrolled in school, he failed in his studies, haunted by the memory of his happy family life before the war, before his brutal separation and painful exile, before destiny robbed him of his childhood.
The deprivations Roger suffered affected his eyesight, and he must now wear glasses. He is currently completing his training, financed by UNHCR, to become a glazier, and is hoping to be hired by his instructor so he can support himself by the time he turns 18.
Although far from home, the teenager's heart is still close to the family he left behind. He dreams of seeing his mother's smile and holding her in his arms again. He hopes he can find the father he so admired, and wonders if he can recognise his younger brothers who, if they are still alive, would have grown up by now.
Today, five years after Roger's flight and three civil wars later, a fragile peace has returned to the Republic of the Congo. As his homeland begins its long trek towards recovery and democracy, the young refugee, too, could be inching closer to seeing his family again.
By Michel Gaudé