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Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Tanzania: A Grand Old Lady and a seven-year-old refugee

Refugees Magazine Issue 111 (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 50th Anniversary) - Tanzania: A Grand Old Lady and a seven-year-old refugee
Refugees (111, I - 1998)

1 March 1998
A roundup of world refugee stories

As refugees who fled conflict in the then Zaire in 1996 have begun to return home from Tanzania, many have found an unusual ally to help.

In adolescence she was a member of the German Imperial Navy. She helped inspire the classic Hollywood movie African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Now, in old age this Grand Old Lady is giving a helping hand to refugees including one particularly lucky child called Olivier.

'She' is the lake steamer MV Liemba which several times a week shuttles between the Tanzanian port of Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika to Uvira in Democratic Congo.

When rebellion first swept the then eastern Zaire in late 1996, as many as 74,000 people fled eastwards into Tanzania across the lake on anything that would float including fishing smacks, dugouts, even logs and rubber tyres.

Late last year, though conditions still remained unsettled and difficult in Eastern Congo, some of the refugees began to return home, sometimes in more style than they left, aboard the Liemba.

The 1,500-ton motor vessel has plied the lake, one of the deepest inland waterways in the world, for decades and has played a prominent role in some of the upheavals which periodically shook Central Africa.


She was built early this century and christened as the motor vessel Gotzen. The ship was converted into a gunboat and raider and after several years of playing hide and seek on the lake with British and Belgian warships during World War 1, the Germans themselves scuttled the Gotzen just outside Kigoma harbour, first taking care to oil all her machinery with a view to salvaging her after the war. She was raised - not by the Germans - but by the British who took over the Tanganyika territory, rechristened the ship the Liemba and put her to work as a passenger steamer.

The war on the lake eventually inspired a book, The African Queen, and the subsequent 1950s movie.

One of the Liemba's luckiest passengers on a nine-hour night crossing recently was seven-year-old Olivier. When fighting engulfed his village in October, 1996, Olivier's elderly grandfather who was looking after the child, urged him to flee.

As he ran to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a family from Burundi who had earlier been forced to leave that country and was again on the run, helped him aboard a fishing boat bound for Tanzania.

The Niyonjuru family ended up in the Moyovosi camp for Burundi refugees some 35 kilometres from the Tanzanian town of Kigoma. In one of the many acts of spontaneous kindness and generosity which occurred during the Great Lakes crisis, in sharp contrast to the more well known tales of butchery, the Niyonkurus, a family of six, effectively adopted Olivier for nearly one year.

Aid officials eventually heard of the little boy, were able to trace his parents who had NOT fled during the turmoil, and arranged a homecoming.

'I am happy that Olivier is to rejoin his parents,' the elder Niyonkuru said as his family prepared to say goodbye to their 'adopted' son. 'We regret that we have to part with each other because he was so much a part of my family ... '

Olivier sailed home on the Liemba with 19 other unaccompanied children, none of whom were certain their parents would be waiting. But as dawn broke over the Congo shoreline all were welcomed home by their families.

It is not a totally happy tale, however. A more uncertain fate awaited the Niyonkurus. They will stay in a refugee camp as long as the situation in Burundi remains so uncertain.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 111 (1998)