Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Between a rock and hard place

Refugees seek shelter at Kalemba Hall, St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka.

 EMMANUEL Uwiragire worked hard to rebuild his life after escaping the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which claimed about one million lives. In 2002, he set up a shop in Lusaka’s Zingalume township, which became the family’s only source of income, but he lost all his investment in a violent flash.
Recently, a wave of riots and looting spread across several townships of Lusaka like wild fire as enraged residents targeted shops owned by foreigners, mostly Rwandans and Congolese.
The riots were triggered by a rumour that some Rwandan shop owners were behind the spate of gruesome murders suspected to be ritual killings in Zingalume, George and Lilanda townships since March 16.
In all, seven male bodies were discovered in the three townships with body parts including sexual organs missing. From the last two bodies, the killers harvested the hearts as well.
Police have so far arrested 11 people in connection with the murders, but are yet to reveal their identities.
The rioting and looting resulted in a humanitarian crisis as over 300 refugees and asylum seekers trooped to St Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka seeking refuge, while others left the city to hide.
Mr Uwiragire’s family – wife and five children – sheltered with a Zambian family for protection during the riots.
“I have nowhere to go; my family’s foundation has been destroyed. All my children were born here, but now their future has been destroyed,” he says, his voice full of exasperation.
Despite the loss he suffered and fear for his life, Mr Uwiragire does not want to live in a refugee camp again. He says life in the camp is hard.
“I don’t want to live in a camp. How will I fend for my family there?” asks Mr Uwiragire.
He says he would rather be taken to another country than spend life in a camp.
And he is not the only one who hates living in a camp.
David Niyonsima, an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), also says life in the refugee camp is hard.
Three years ago, the 44-year-old escaped from the Mai Mai rebels in Bukavu, DRC. He escaped to Zambia and established himself as a grocer in Lusaka, albeit illegally.
But recently, Mr Niyonsima watched from a distance as his dream was ransacked by angry residents.
And he was faced with the hard prospect of life in a refugee camp.
Many of the refugees consider Zambia as their home and refuse to return to their countries. The refugees hope to be integrated into the Zambian society.
“There is nothing to return to, I have grown up here,” says Pascal, a young Burundian man who came to Zambia when he was seven.
Pascal lost both his parents during the civil war that erupted in Burundi in 1993.
“I can’t go back to Burundi because I have no family there,” he says.
But the rioting robbed Pascal of his livelihood.
“I have nothing left on me except for this phone,” says the 26-year-old.
Frodouald Ntezimana, a Rwandan anesthetist working at Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital, argues that his fellow countrymen could not have been involved in the heinous crimes that shook the city because they are looking forward to being integrated into the Zambian society.
“Rwandans were preparing to be integrated, so what benefit do you get by making the society where you want to be integrated rise against you?” he asks.
“The Rwandans have nothing to benefit out of this, because they are losing their property and they are losing the good relationship they have had with Zambians,” says Mr Ntezimana.
He wants evidence to show that the Rwandans were involved in the killings.
Majority of the refugees live in shanty townships around the city, where they engage in trading. Many of them have been successful at it.
Jean Claude Ntihabose, who is spokesperson for the Rwandan refugees, says the refugees opt to live in the townships because those are the only places they can afford.
“We can’t rent shops in town like our Asian friends,” says Mr Ntihabose.
But what is the secret to their success at trading?
Mr Ntihabose says it is circumstances that have turned the refugees into good traders.
“It is just because of the suffering. You see, when you have nowhere to go, you really have to work hard and work it out because you are avoiding to break the law,” he says.
Joe (last name withheld) was only 17 when the genocide happened. Both his parents were killed and he escaped to a refugee camp in the DRC.
Two years later, war broke out in the DRC and Joe had to make another escape to Zambia.
He spent four years at Meheba Refugee Camp in Solwezi, North-Western Province, where he made and sold fritters to earn an income. He then moved to Lusaka, where he began his trading business.
Today, Joe owns a small but well-stocked shop in Kabwata and was granted a work permit by the government.
There are currently about 3,000 Rwandans living in Zambia, a few of them still living at Meheba and Mayukwayukwa refugee camps.
It is now 22 years since the genocide happened in Rwanda, but most of the refugees still bear the emotional and physical scars of the war.
Joe says the recent attacks reminded him of the wars in Rwanda and the DRC.
“Most of the people here are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda and Congo,” he says. “Most of the people here, 80 to 90 percent originate from Congo, where they were refugees. I’m part of them, and the memories are still fresh.”
Joe lifts his trousers to reveal an ugly scar on the back of his leg inflicted by a bullet from rebel soldiers during his escape from Rwanda.
“You see this?” he says, pointing. “I can’t go back to Rwanda.”

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