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World's oldest refugee hopes for peace in Angola

World's oldest refugee hopes for peace in Angola

At 105 years old, an Angolan refugee in Zambia describes the day he fled his home as the worst of his life.
29 November 2001
Silva Kawanda, who at 105 is believed to be the world's oldest refugee, at the Nangweshi Camp in western Zambia.

NANGWESHI, Zambia (UNHCR) - Silva Kawanda describes the day he fled his home in Jamba, Angola, as the worst of his life. His comment is not to be taken lightly. At 105, Kawanda is thought to be the world's oldest refugee.

Since arriving at the Nangweshi refugee camp in western Zambia in May after a gruelling four-month journey with his 80-year-old wife, Kawanda has been visited by Zambian Foreign Affairs Minister Keli Walubita and Home Affairs Minister Dr. Peter Machungwa. In July, High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers also met with Kawanda at the camp.

"In Zambia, I met a 105 year-old Angolan refugee who could tell me the stories of generations," Lubbers wrote in a message to the agency's staff. "In the same camp, a considerable number of babies are born each month. To me these people are more than statistics. It was a remarkable experience - seeing a man who is more than a century old and represents a rich history and babies who represent the future."

The High Commissioner added that during his first months in office he had been particularly struck by the resilience of refugees. He said he was most impressed by their immense ability to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and to look to the future with hope and courage.

Home to some 15,000 Angolan refugees, Nangweshi is a relatively new camp of orderly grass huts. But it is changing rapidly. Offices, a police station, shops and trading posts are being built, along with new classrooms for children who used to study under trees.

The camp, however, is isolated. At the height of the rainy season Nangweshi can be reached only by boat. Even during dry weather travelling by four-wheel-drive vehicle to the camp from the nearest township of Senanga is a gruelling one-and-a-half hour journey on a road ravaged by seasonal floods, potholes and sand.

But the road to Nangweshi was even harder for Kawanda and his 80-year-old wife, Paulina Chivela. In January 2000, the couple fled the Angolan town of Jamba, a one-time UNITA rebel stronghold, after it was bombed and captured by MPLA government soldiers. The old couple joined the more than 15,000 other refugees forced to flee.

Kawanda and Paulina spent four months in the bush on the way from Jamba to the Zambian border. When they were lucky, they slept on tree leaves spread on the ground. At times, they went without food. On other occasions they survived only on wild fruits and roots.

"Sometimes we had to follow birds in order to get some of their fruits for us to feed on. When we found a dead animal, we had a special meal that day," Kawanda recalled. "Only God knows our suffering."

He explained that because of his age he could not walk very long distances, forcing him to rely on the good will of other refugees - men who carried him on improvised stretchers made out of poles and tree fibres.

Before reaching Zambia, he and his wife had to cross crocodile infested rivers, which are numerous in that part of Angola. Yet despite the risks and hardships, Kawanda pushed on, saying he could not bear to die in the bombings back home.

Kawanda's most vivid memories are of the children he met during the long, arduous trip. Children separated from their families, alone, running for safety. He says they reminded him of his own children and grandchildren who were killed in the war or died of starvation. He does not know the fate of his own ten offspring.

At the camp Kawanda spends most of his time in his hut and walks with the help of his wife. But he loves the children in Nangweshi and feels that he has much in common with them despite an age difference of almost a century. He tells them tales of African folklore when they visit him in his tent. Under the circumstances, he says, stories and encouragement are the only things that can give them hope that one day they will be able to make things better.

Kawanda believes today's evils have been caused by man, blinded by greed at the detriment of society's progress. He urges Angolans to take charge of their fate, and calls on the two sides in the conflict to stop the fighting, saying the war had claimed many lives.

"Bullets took everyone - men, women and children alike - without choice," he said. "I only wish that if one day things are okay, people will go back home to Angola."

"We need peace in Angola."

By Kelvin Shimo
UNHCR Zambia