Published: October 27th 2010October 2nd 2010
September and October have flown by, and I finally got the chance to do something I had been wanting for a while - to escort a convoy of 500 refugees returning home to the Congo.
Just to reiterate for the more forgetful among you, I am working at a refugee camp in Zambia.
All of the refugees in that camp are from the DRC, and they have been living here since 2000. They came here because there was a very bloody war happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) at the time. For an excellent summary of the war and its causes, click this link
In terms of the refugee camp - there are schools, a hospital, a playing field, UNHCR offices, a library, a court, a Sexual and Gender-based Violence centre, etc etc. The refugees live in mud-brick houses and they are only allowed to leave the camp with a permit from the Zambian government.
Anyway as time has passed since 2000, the situation in Katanga province in the DRC, where there refugees are from, has improved, and since 2007 it has been considered safe to return.
So, since that time, UNHCR
has been taking these refugees home. They go on buses and sometimes on a boat, and once they arrive home, they are allocated a plot of land, given building materials, kitchenware, and other household supplies in order to allow them to re-build their lives.
This entire process is known as repatriation. In 2007 there were around 30,000 refugees in Kala camp. Today, as I write this entry, there are around 200. The vast majority of that 29,800 have been through that repatriation process with UNHCR.
With so much of what our sub-office has been doing surrounding repatriation, I really wanted some first-hand experience on what the returning-home process was like for the refugees, and particularly those in vulnerable situations, like orphans, the sick or the disabled. Looking back on it now, it was a once in a lifetime experience, and it is definitely something I will never forget.
Basically, the journey from Kala refugee camp near Kawambwa in Zambia to Moba in DRC, where this group of 500 refugees were from, takes two days.
First off, it is a 12 hour bus ride from Kawambwa to Mpulungu harbor in northern Zambia, on the shores of Lake
Tanganyika, arriving at around 5pm.
In terms of the Lake itself - Lake Tanganyika is the second largest lake (by volume) in the world, and also the 2nd deepest lake in the world. It is also the world's longest lake. The lake is divided between four countries - Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Zambia. It extends for 673 km in a general north-south direction and averages 50 km in width. The lake covers 32,900 km2, with a shoreline of 1,828 km, a mean depth of 570 m and a maximum depth of 1,470 m (word up to Wikipedia).
The trip from Kala camp to Mpulungu harbour was almost all on dirt roads, and seeing that our UNHCR vehicle is at the rear of 8 buses, it is fair to say it was a fairly dusty ride. My white UNHCR shirt was chocolate brown by the time we got to the port - it was one of my best looks. The lack of air-conditioning in the vehicle also made it a ridiculously hot ride, and the fact that you cannot put your window down because of the dust - let's just say it
made our vehicle a dusty sweatbox. Not that I was complaining - just trying to set the scene for you avid readers!
After the arrival of the convoy at the harbour, the process of loading the ship with the refugees luggage commenced, and it took a long time. For the 500 refugees, there were around 6 big trucks full of luggage, plus hand luggage. Most of it was loaded using a crane.
The refugees have a lot of luggage (as anyone moving home would), so it takes a long time to load the boat, and as you can see from the pictures, there is luggage everywhere. And the term luggage is a tad misleading - it is not as if we are talking about suitcases or boxes here - we are talking about all manner of things - goats, pigs, chickens, doors, cassava, bicycle parts, tin cans, tables, chairs, roofing sheets, rabbits, timber, door-frames, window frames - you name it, it was there.
At around 8pm the luggage loading was completed, so we then set about ensuring all of the refugees were loaded on board and had found themselves and their families a place to sit. After
that, we set sail for Moba port, a trip which would take us around 13 hours.
I have got to say it was an incredibly weird feeling for someone like me who is used to the ocean - to be on a huge boat with 600 people on board, on a mass of water so large that you cannot see land in any direction, yet you are on a lake in the middle of Africa, completely surrounded by land.
It really was an amazing sight, and I am incapable of putting it into any superlatives that will properly justify it. Let's just say the lake is huge, and that it has the feel of an ocean - there are waves and all that, and most of the time land was out of sight.
After the boat set off, we then went about organising the dinner for the refugees. It wasn't the most enjoyable of tasks, as the kitchen is on the bottom level of the boat, where it is so humid and hot, I think I dropped 8 kilo's in the 2 hours we were down there. After that, I did some checks on all of the
refugees with specific needs, making sure they were comfortable and ok. We then had our own dinner - which for me was beef stew and rice, which was surprisingly good.
Eventually, the refugees settled down to sleep, and so after dinner we we had some free time to sit up on the top level of the boat and enjoy the breeze and the beautiful moonlight over the water.
The refugees basically sleep on the floor in the hull of the boat, with the refugees with specific needs - like orphans, pregnant women and the disabled - being allocated their own cabin. The 3 UNHCR staff members escorting the convoy also each get a cabin, with a shared shower (my first shower since leaving Australia in August, it was a maz ing!). There is a restaurant on board, along with a bar fully stocked with a range of beers from Tanzania. It is safe to say that as busy as we were, I found time to sample them all!
I retired to my cabin at around 11pm, and despite the noise and the rocking of the boat, I slept like an absolute baby.
The next morning I
woke at around 5am, and immediately got dressed, excited for the day ahead and the sight of the morning sunrise over the lake that would greet me. I stepped out from my cabin and was immediately confronted by a sight of hundreds of small sailing-fishing boats, which again was a magical sight. The photo's don't really do it justice.
I spent the morning watching the sun rise over the approaching hills of Moba whilst hanging out with the refugees, talking to those who could speak English about their feelings of going home, and mucking around with some of the kids. They love getting their photos taken and then looking at them on the camera, so that is always fun.
Shortly after, we arrived in Moba port, DRC, my first visit to the notorious 'Congo'. As you can see, the 'port' at Moba basically is just a slab of concrete. It is a weird sight, there are two burnt out cars just sitting there on the port.
The town of Moba is set on the side of a hill, and even from the boat, it appeared pretty sparsely populated. You can see the remnants of war everywhere -
burnt out government buildings, craters and the like. There are very few trees - which is probably a combination of deforestation and war, or maybe there are just not many trees there. I have no idea. Regardless, Moba still has the feel of a beachside fishing village, and it is a beautiful place with beautiful people.
Upon arrival, I scanned the busy beach of the lake and saw a multitude of activities - kids swimming, fishermen inspecting their catch, people walking, and a row of UNHCR trucks ready to start taking the refugees luggage to the departure centre.
After the boat docked, we were greeted by UNHCR and DRC government officials in a form of a 'welcome home' ceremony. There was a brass band, signing, dancing (as only the Congolese know how) and some speeches by the respective dignatories.
Those speaking welcomed the refugees 'home', and encouraged them to be an active part of the rebuilding of their country. After each speech there was a song, and much joyous cheering and more dancing. Seeing the happiness in the eyes and on the faces of each the refugees at this point, them being so excited to finally be
home after 10 years away, gave me constant pins and needles and admittedly brought a simultaneous smile to my face and tear to my eye. It was one of those special moments in my life that I will never ever forget.
Anyway, once the formalities at the port were finished, we loaded the refugees into trucks, and proceeded to the arrival centre in Moba - about 30 minutes drive directly up the hill from the port. It is there that the refugees are welcomed by UNHCR, they receive their materials that I mentioned before, and are then allowed to return to their former homes. If they wish they can sleep at the arrival centre (there are tents and matresses etc) until their homes are properly set up. We only spent around an hour there, after which I said my good byes ('Kwaheri' in Swahili) to the refugees I had come to know better during the journey and my time at the camp.
We then set off for town market.
At the market the main item on my shopping list was a DRC t-shirt, but despite my searching high and low, there were none there. I did manage
to buy a beautiful chitenge - which is basically a roll of colourful patterned material that is purchased and then given to to tailor to make dresses, skirts, shirts and the like. I also found some giant banana's, called 'plantain' which you fry in oil and eat with beans and rice. They are extremely tasty.
We then returned to the boat for the evening. We were joined in the bar by some immigration officials, who then proceeded to request that I buy them beers for the evening. They were nice enough, but I still sensed that this was not a situation I would especially feel comfortable in. So after I had bought them one round I quietly excused myself to my cabin for the evening.
The next day, as Sunday, was also spent at the port, because it was taking so long to unload the mountains of luggage. I spent most of the day reading my book and sipping Tanzanian beer. I found Balimi to be the best one - it was $1.50 for a longneck, which I think is just magic!
We also did some more exploring of the town, escorted by one of the immigration
officials. As I said before, it is basically just a village, with one main dirt road, and stalls, markets and shops all along the road-side. There is no electricity, and many houses share one source of water. Whilst the infrastructure is virtually non-existent, the people still appeared to be getting on with living their lives - I saw men fishing in their boats, women washing clothes in the street, children playing, people selling all manner of things, from fruit and veg to nike basketball posters.
Whilst we were in town I continued my quest to find a DRC t-shirt, preferably with the flag on it, but once again I failed. And I have to admit I was a bit dumbfounded - for some reason I had thought there would be heaps of those t-shirts available. But instead all I could find were brand rip-offs and Obama t-shirts. I was told by the vendors (through an interpreter) that you can really only get that sort of stuff in the tourist places. It was at that point that I began to feel utterly stupid for being frustrated at the non-existence of the shirts. I mean, what kind of market would they
have in a small Congolese village for tourist t-shirts. Fool.
That evening, as the luggage unloading was finally finishing, a young Congolese child who had been jumping off the port into the water drowned. I didn't see it, but apparently one of the members of the boat crew rescued him from the water and tried to revive him, but to no avail. It certainly was a very sad way to end my time in the Congo. Shortly after, the boat set off for Zambia.
The journey home was extremely quiet, and it was nice to be able to relax a bit and enjoy the quiet of the evening on the ship. Unfortunately however I got sick - a stomach bug, and got to spend most of the evening on the ridiculously hot toilet (which was right next to the engine room).
We arrived in Zambia the next morning, and then proceeded by car to Kawambwa. Without the buses it was a much quicker ride.
As I have said, all in all it was an amazing, unforgettable journey, full of a range of emotions and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to experience it.
It really was a fitting way to mark the almost-end of my time here. I now sit in the Kawambwa office, with only 3 days left here until I return to Lusaka. My child protection work has basically finished, which has given me an enormous feeling of satisfaction. There will be more about that, and my work activities outside of the convoy, in the next blog. Thanks for reading. By your acts you shall be judged.
There are more photos below