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Portraits of Congolese Refugee Women

Portraits of Congolese Refugee Women

Photos and interviews by Giles Duley in Lóvua, Angola

Zeinabou, 42, photographed in her relatives’ courtyard in Burkina Faso. Three days earlier, her husband was killed before her eyes.

Since fresh fighting broke out in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March 2017, the viciousness against women has been particularly brutal.

Rape and sexual violence continue to be used as weapons of war in a conflict that has triggered the internal displacement of some 1.4 million people – and the flight of over 35,000 refugees into Lunda Norte Province in northeastern Angola.

UNHCR sent photographer Giles Duley to meet with survivors, bear witness to their suffering and pay tribute to their strength.

Many of the Congolese refugees who arrived in Angola have been relocated to the UNHCR settlement in Lóvua.

More than 13,000 Congolese refugees are now living in the Lóvua settlement, where UNHCR and its partners are providing shelter, food and water, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, solar-powered lamps and other relief items – as well as essential services through schools, health-care clinics (including mental health) and sanitation facilities. Yet life in the newly cleared jungle settlement is still hard – and the refugees’ future remains uncertain.

As Congolese families began arriving in Angola, they brought with them harrowing accounts of things they had witnessed, or experienced, back home in Kasai. They spoke of widespread violence, mass killings, mutilations, burning of property, destruction of villages, schools and churches, and human rights abuses, as well as food shortages and the lack of access to basic services and goods. Many told of combatants deliberately targeting women in some of the worst gender-based violence the region has seen. The health workers who received them were shocked by the stories and medical condition of many of the women and girls arriving.

Today at the refugee settlement in Lóvua, 75 per cent of the Congolese residents are women and children, and almost one in every four households is headed by a woman. With so many men missing, dead, or unable to work, it is the women who have to try and rebuild shattered lives – and support families.

Congolese Displacement in Numbers







Germaine Alonde, 25

“We had good land at home, a good life. Then the militias and the armies came. They took everything.”

“They killed my older brother. It was terrible. We saw so much blood, and each time my heart would stop. I couldn’t sleep. Then one day they came near to our home to start their killing and we all fled. We were terrified – everyone was running. We knew what they would do. My oldest daughter, Thérèse (who was seven), took my baby Hélène (who was two) whilst I ran back to the home to gather what I could and get the other children. At the border everybody was pushing and shoving. I couldn’t see Thérèse. We were all separated. And in that chaos she dropped the baby. For two weeks we thought Hélène was lost. Then one day in the camp my neighbour came up to me and said she’d seen my baby. I couldn’t believe her! But she had. She’d been walking past a centre for unaccompanied children and she’s seen Hélène! We went straight away and were reunited. There was so much joy.”

Thérese Mandaka, 19

Here we suffer a lot. For us women, we were particular targets. The biggest suffering was kept for us.

“When the soldiers came, I was separated from my husband. He’d gone to look for work. I was home and sick. I was pregnant. But my strength comes from my home. Even though I was sick, I knew I would have to escape. I thought they would kill the baby inside me. That’s where I found my strength, nobody else but me. Now here in the camp I am a mother, so I must be strong.” Thérèse pauses and gathers herself. She has not seen her husband since she fled to Angola. He hasn’t seen their child, Munduko, who’s now four months old. “I just want us to be together again.”

Lina Mananga, 18

“As soon as they arrived they started shooting, cutting people’s heads. I was repulsed.”

“Each day we wake in the morning, we collect water, we clean clothes, we look for that we can eat, we cook. This is our day. It is tough, physical work. When we fled Kamako, I remember the day. The children were dressed in red when the troops started arriving. As soon as they arrived they started shooting, cutting people’s heads. I was repulsed. As a woman I felt in a lot of danger. I was with a child and I knew that even if I gave birth that day, they would kill the child. I have seen this. I have one child. Because of this violence, I had a miscarriage with the other. I am young, so I have to be strong. But some are not.”

Muzi Kingambo, 26

“It is not easy. I suffer here. I have many pains in my back, my bladder, pains women shouldn’t have. In Congo I lived with my husband. I want that life again.

Chantal Kutumbuka, 45

“I used to be a farmer. I’m used to working with my hands. So it’s hard for me to be here. I just want to work.”

“We had land, we could sell things, I could look after my children. When the violence started I lived in fear. The militia would go to a house and I would see them carry out the woman. I knew what they were doing. I was afraid – I couldn’t have endured that. Then one day they killed my husband, who was a policeman, and we fled. We abandoned everything. It’s hard. I’ve lost weight, the children cry. At times I don’t know what to do. But I carry on.”

Mimi Misenga, 45

“Sometimes I am very sad at all we have lost. Other times we let it go. We have our lives.

“Sometimes I am very sad at all we have lost. Other times we let it go. We have our lives. They killed my uncle, his sons. We couldn’t even bury them. It was too much. My neighbour, they made him rape his daughter. Then the troops raped the daughters in front of the family. I was so afraid for my children. We escaped barefoot into the bush, then found a way to escape. I had nothing. Then I looked at my children. They gave me strength. I am never tired. I am so strong. My body is always moving, ready to work, even when I sleep! Honestly, I don’t know where that strength comes from. I am never tired. I say to my daughters, ‘Stay calm, find a good husband and follow my example. Follow my strength.’ ”

Bernardete Tchanda, 42

“Women suffer the most, so they have the most strength.

“I ran from Kabila’s war (Joseph Kabila, president of DR Congo). We saw the troops come. They killed many people. They pointed a gun at my husband, but we managed to escape with our two children. As a woman I was particularly afraid. The sounds of weapons, the sound of death. I was afraid. The troops would rape. They would kill women. This happened to my friends. I feel protected here, in the camp. In the past my husband would beat me, but not here. They have laws and he is scared. I have a lot of joy… I get a lot of strength when I dance. Women get strength from dance. Women suffer the most, so they have the most strength.”

Coco Mawa, 35

“Life in the camp is not easy. It is the woman who works, who cooks, who looks after the children. Sometimes when I go into the woods to gather leaves to cook with, I dream of my past life.”

Rose Lusanda, 46

“A woman’s a helper. We carry the strength. The women hold the community together.

“In the markets they would charge us more because we were Luba. They would say, ‘Kill all the Lubas.’ Then when the soldiers came, we escaped. They were killing everybody. Threatening the people, raping our daughters. They were forcing fathers to sleep with their daughters, and if the men refused, they were shot. Being a woman, we were stripped of our strength by their threats. Kabila made us suffer. But we cannot be weak, we escaped the war. No other human will give you that strength. I had that strength inside of me. I had the courage to do whatever has to be done. Sometimes I say to my daughter, now we are here (in the camp), I tell her to feel the courage. To find the calm, be calm, stay calm.”

Sylvie Kapenga, 26

“To be honest, I am not that strong. I lost everything.”

“Being a woman and a man is the same. They were killing us all the same. Where we were we were caught between two sides. Everybody wanted us to die. I have four children: two girls and two boys. It’s tough here – little food, no clothes, just what we have. As a woman, I am the one that works. To be honest, I am not that strong. I lost everything. I am not sure how to carry on.”

Ani Tcheba, 19

“As a refugee it is harder as a woman, as we have the responsibility for food and the children.

“We left our village in Congo on a Monday morning at 6 a.m. I remember I had no strength. I was heavily pregnant. It had been a difficult pregnancy and I was so worried I’d lose the baby. My husband pulled me. As a refugee it is harder as a woman, as we have the responsibility for food and the children. But here the women have given me inspiration. We share food. When I am missing something they give it to me and vice versa. We help each other with the hardships. We are stronger together.”

Carine Rolenga, 20

“When we heard gunshots in the village, we knew it was time to leave. As a woman I felt particularly under threat. At night they would take the men and rape the women. In truth I don’t understand why people would do this. It’s beyond me.

These photographs and interviews by Giles Duley were first published in Humanity magazine. The interviews have been condensed for length and readability.

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