Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Loamba Moke, human rights defender in Congo-Brazza: “The situation of Rwandan refugees in Congo is ambiguous”.

The following interview was done by Merveille Kakule Saliboko, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC.

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Loamba Moke, human rights defender in Congo-Brazza: “The situation of Rwandan refugees in Congo is ambiguous”.

After the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 (800,000 deaths among the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu), a few thousand Rwandans had taken refuge in the Congo, a small country in Central Africa of about 5 million inhabitants after crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are now scattered in many parts of the country and depend on agropastoral activities or petty trading. On them hangs the threat of statelessness due to the cessation of refugee status since December 31, 2017.

To better understand the situation, Mr. Loamba Moke, President of the Association of Human Rights and the Prison System (ADHUC), a civil society organization from Congo-Brazza, is online from Brazzaville. Interview with Merveille Kakule Saliboko, one of the Young Peace Journalists …

Mr. Loamba Moke, in mid-January, you published a statement in which you say that the Prime Minister of Congo-Brazza, Mr. Clement Mouamba, “just planned the genocide of the 8,460 Rwandan refugees” in the Congo. Today, how could we call these people? Refugees or migrants?

You are right to ask this question which is very delicate. As a human rights defender myself, I find it difficult to put an exact answer, to say what these non-exempt Rwandan refugees are becoming. Have they become migrants, stateless people? This is a very important question. Since the declaration of Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, the applicability of the conventions that Congo and Rwanda have had to sign internally, these conventions violate copiously and correctly the regional and international conventions. So, today, the situation Rwandan refugees in Congo is an ambiguous situation. We do not know which category to put these Rwandan refugees.

So, the Prime Minister’s statement of January 10, 2018 refers to the cessation of refugee status clause. What is the result of this statement?

After the Prime Minister’s statement, there were no effects of applicability. In principle, what we were waiting for was to see what the government should do to ask what the methodology is, what the means are … In fact, in the internal convention signed between the Congo and Rwanda, it is said that refugees who refused to go home, would be sentenced, arrested, extradited. You see that extraditing 8,460 refugees is not easy now to arrest all these people. To this day, the only difficulty that Rwandan refugees face is that they have no more papers, they cannot do any activities and therefore they are ransomed by the police of our country. This is a situation of violation of human rights, the rights of these Rwandan refugees.

Before this clause of cessation of refugee status, before this statement by Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, how did these Rwandan refugees live on Congolese soil?

They have been here in Congo for 20 years. There have been mixed marriages, some are farming, others are trading … They were already fully integrated in Congolese society. But unfortunately, today, they live the opposite of this integration that they had lived for nearly 20 years in Congolese society.

Has the status of these people changed in their daily lives? Are these people afraid to go out and not be arrested by the security services?

Exactly, they are arrested. So far, they only have their refugee cards running until December 31, 2017. And when the police arrest them, looking at who is already out of date, the policemen kidnap them, either arrested in police stations. They are asphyxiated. It’s hard to call this life a secret life. We call on the Congolese government to find a durable solution quickly.

Do you have any idea how many Rwandan refugees would be in Congolese prisons because they were arrested by the police because of the Prime Minister’s statement?

You know, there is no government information on the situation. The police act in their own way. The police are calling these Rwandan refugees and when they are arrested, at some point, if they have some money, they give. Sometimes they choose not to go to the prison and live in hiding. We are preparing a report of the reality on the ground, to describe in detail the situation.

Have there ever been voluntary returns of Rwandan refugees to their country of origin?

There were not many people; it’s at most twenty. We know the number of refugees who are not exempt, the 8,460. Moreover, those who have returned to Rwanda do not exceed twenty. Most of them remained in Congo because for them peace is not yet effective at the level of Rwanda.

In your press release, you ask yourself several questions about the reasons behind Prime Minister Clément Mouamba’s statement. What do you think would have motivated the Congolese prime minister?

The motivation is very simple. If you read our memorandum published in February 2017, in this memorandum, we showed what agreements the Congo had already signed with Rwanda, through their foreign affairs ministries. The Prime Minister is just applying these ten conventions. In one of these documents, it is said that when Rwandan refugees refuse to go home, the Congo has the obligation to arrest them and extradite them. This is well stated in the convention signed under the assistance of UNHCR, the United Nations High Council for Refugees. Has there been a thorough analysis to see how far more than 8,460 people can be extradited to their country? I do not know how they will proceed …

On October 2, 2015, a ministerial meeting on the Global Solutions Strategy for Rwandan Refugees took place in Geneva at UNHCR Headquarters. About voluntary repatriation, the Rwandan Government pledged on that day to “guarantee the safe and dignified return and reintegration of all refugees and take all necessary measures to that end”. Was this commitment not enough to convince refugees to return to Rwanda?

You know it’s a problem of the person. Every person has his rights. We have an obligation to respect the rights of each person. Only these people can tell us the reality. They are Rwandans, they lived in their country. Now that their country is developed, why do not they want to go back? That is what justifies events because in political law there is voluntary return, local integration and resettlement. But in Congo, the part of resettlement was obstructed, and voluntary return and local integration were kept. For us, we first look at the individual. What does the individual think of himself? Is he reassured? It’s not a question of what the rulers do. A good part of refugees does not want to leave because they do not have the security guarantee. We must analyse those people who have lived in Rwanda, who have lived through the war, who have fled their country and who are on Congolese territory. They have rights that UNHCR must respect, as well as Rwanda and Congo. Did they respect the rights of refugees? Now, if they are turned back, expelled, their rights are not respected. You know that the Rwandans who are in Congo have memoranda, which they sent to the head of state explaining their non-return. That’s it but their explanations were not considered.

The same meeting of 2 October 2015 also talks about local integration. The “commitment of the participants to redouble their efforts to facilitate the possibilities of local integration for those who wish to remain in the country of asylum”. What has been done in this way?

Local integration took place in 2006 in Congo. Because the Congo and Rwanda, in their conventions, it is said somewhere that Rwandan refugees in Congo-Brazza must withdraw the passports at the level of the chancery, at the embassy of Rwanda in the Congo. These people still consider themselves refugees. And the 1961 convention says that when a refugee agrees to take a document from his country such as a passport, that person totally loses his refugee status. This is an obstacle for Rwandan refugees. The Rwandan and Congolese governments have put in place this strategy for refugees to withdraw their passports to achieve local integration. But, dear journalist, the Rwandan refugees arrived in Brazzaville without any documents because they were in a situation of war. And when they arrived in Congo, they were granted a collective status. UNHCR has kept them for 20 years under this collective status. UNHCR could, after two years, examine case by case and determine who should be and who should not be refugees. UNHCR waited 20 years to ask these refugees to build files to have individual refugee status. This means that there has been a lack of documents everywhere in the refugee camp in our country.

Another commitment that day was the “need to prevent former refugees from finding themselves without legal status or at risk of becoming stateless and agree to take all possible measures, including the exploration of the acquisition of citizenship, to avoid such a situation “. Are there any progress towards the acquisition of Congolese citizenship for these Rwandan refugees?

We are putting in place a strategy because you know that people have spent 20 years in Congo, they have had children in this country. And these children are at university, in high schools, in colleges. These children live in the same camps with their parents. However, our national law states that at 18 you can have nationality. It is a possibility for us to see these children who cannot go to Rwanda but who can acquire nationality, which could arrange their parents. This is an approach that ADHUC is putting in place today.

What is the status of these children born of mixed marriages? I imagine they are torn between the possibility of staying in Congo with their Congolese parents or returning to Rwanda with Rwandan parents …

In principle, even Rwandan children, born to Rwandan parents on Congolese soil, can apply for Congolese citizenship at 18 years of age. That, there are not so many problems. Now, we call on the Congolese government to tap into wisdom and find a lasting solution. We told the United Nations to find a lasting solution. The durable solution is neither forced repatriation nor extradition. I believe that the Congolese government is seeking a solution and I hope that the durable solution will be found to respond to the lamentations, tears and worries of the refugees. I am tempted to say that a political solution is needed at this time.

When and how did these Rwandan refugees arrive in Congo-Brazzaville, more than 2,000 kilometers from their native Rwanda?

You know that the DRC is border with Congo, and the DRC borders Rwanda. After the Rwandan genocide, many refugees found themselves in the DRC. When the Kigali power pursued them into the DRC’s forests, they crossed this vast country. We recorded unaccompanied children, those who lost their parents on the way but there was African solidarity, Bantu solidarity and we brought them to Brazzaville. See! Even these children are considered as people who must go back to Rwanda. They were chased towards the DRC, from where they were chased again in the forests and they found themselves in Congo crossing the Congo river to meet in the northern departments, in Ikolela and Ikobo. Today, they are still pursued.

According to the AFP (Agence France Presse), before the deadline of December 31, only 104 Rwandan refugees were repatriated voluntarily in their country, eighteen have sought local integration and 802 have benefited from the exemption until in 2020. The remaining 8,460 are without status.

Merveille Kakule Saliboko is a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC. In May 2016, he won the Peace Journalism Award in North Kivu, a prize set up by AJVPD Tupashe Amani in collaboration with MONUSCO. His award-winning article, “l’agriculture contre la guerre”, published in Afrique Agriculture in March 2016, speaks of displaced people fleeing the massacres taking place in the city and territory of Beni, North Kivu, and who, in waiting for the return of peace in their home environment, engage in agriculture in the city of Butembo. With Pax Christi International, Merveille’s ambition is to be the bard of peace.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: The drama of a young Burundian refugee serving as a teacher in Mulongwe refugee camp

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Interviewee Identity

Name: Ndayishimiye Frédéric Etienne
Age: 25 years old
Sex: M
Marital status: Single, Father of a child
Status: Burundian refugee from Mulongwe Camp

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Summary

This story is about Ndayishimiye Frédéric, a young Burundian refugee who lives nowadays in the Mulongwe camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thanks to his diploma obtained with difficulty in the country of refuge, he teaches to this day at a secondary school which educates Burundian and Congolese children in the locality of the camp. He is the only Burundian teacher at this school, serving as a link between Congolese and Burundian children who don’t have the same culture. Unfortunately, his profession does not guarantee him the dignity of an educator whose noble mission is to sacrifice himself in service for the children’s education.

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Age 25, Ndayishimiye Frédéric is the eldest son of a large family whose survival depended on him because their father died when he was very young. In January 2015, his family received regular night visits by gunmen who had managed to take away all the goats they bred at home.

These undesirable visits had taken a deadly turn during the socio-political unrest linked to the challenge of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime. Armed men, generally suspected to be young people serving the regime, were carrying out assassinations and kidnappings at night, targeting anyone who does not share the political ideology of the ruling party.

To flee and continue his studies in DR Congo before transferring to the Mulongwe refugee camp…

While troubles persisted, “the political and social climate of the area no longer promised a better future because I still needed to continue my studies but there was no way here … that is why I had to look elsewhere,” confides Ndayishimiye Frédéric. In his struggle for intellectual fulfillment and physical security, Frédéric Ndayishimiye saw fit to migrate to DR Congo, leaving behind his young siblings and his mother. Once in the country of asylum, he fortunately found a host family in Sange, South Kivu province, where he had started plowing the residents’ fields and getting paid for the job.

“The fruits of this craft made it easier for me to enroll in the sixth year of secondary school, a final degree, in the general pedagogy section in the Congolese education system,” explains Frédéric, who obtained on that occasion his “State diploma”, equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, allowing him to have access to the university.

With the support of a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that promoted youth education through repayable loans, he was enrolled at the University in the Faculty of Peace Science, Conflict Management and Social Communication, but, according to him, “It was not easy at all because survival depended only on my own efforts. After the course, I had to manage how to eat, while in the meantime I also had to consider repaying the amount received on loan.” He finished this first year in these conditions.

Finally, Ndayishimiye Frédéric resolved to join his fellow Burundian citizens in the transit center to be transferred to the refugee camp. This is how he was admitted and transferred in November 2017 to the newly built Mulongwe refugee camp due to overcrowding of the Lusenda camp.

Until then, the Mulongwe camp was being set up, and everything was not yet organised. Some refugees did not have shelters yet, and others were waiting for enlistment to receive food. In the meantime, the need for education of the children pressed; the area has only one school institution including secondary school and primary school.

In service of the education of children in the camp and the locality of Mulongwe…

While many refugees cultivated and traded food inside the camp because they were allowed to practice the profession of their skills, Ndayishimiye Frédéric had preferred to serve as a teacher at the Kasaba II Institute, the only school in the area where he had applied.

A few weeks later, he was called back to join the teaching staff and was immediately granted the “English and Civic and Moral Education Courses” cause he had had his diploma in the Congolese educational system. Since January 2018, “I regularly practice the teaching profession at this school where I am the only Burundian in a body made up of about ten teachers,” explains Frédéric, who continues: “Every time I come to class, I have in front of me the Burundian children (refugees) and Congolese and also my colleague teachers with whom we cooperate and work in peace … I have never been personally attacked due to my identity.”

To explain the cohabitation at the school between Burundian refugee pupils and Congolese children, Ndayishimiye Frédéric recognises that not all students have the same mastery of French and Swahili, the two languages ​​used in school. This, in his view, handicaps the integration of refugee children who find it difficult to express themselves in a language other than “Kirundi”, the national language of Burundi. In their way of speaking, “Burundian children communicate with difficulty because of the tone of their mother tongue which makes it difficult for them to make heard the sound “l” which they pronounce “r”,” he explains stating that this way of speaking is really the object of laughter by Congolese children.

As an educator, Frédéric Ndayishimiye, who had first lived in the Congo before entering the camp, never stops calling Congolese children to tolerance because this linguistic interference can not immediately change because of the laughter, especially since it’s related to their mother tongue. At least he as a teacher, moreover, due to his Burundian nationality and his mastery of all the languages ​​used at school, knows how to approach all children and explain to them affectionately what it is to live together.

Difficult to live the honour and dignity expected…

Admittedly, “the status of teacher confers a certain esteem to its wearer, especially in school,” acknowledges Frédéric. However, it is sad to see that it is always difficult to find his account in this profession and live the honour and dignity expected. To explain himself, he confesses that he has not received a salary for four months because humanitarian organisations that are supposed to take charge of refugee children, the majority at the school, seem to be shirking their responsibility. This is what makes the teaching profession difficult. “We manage otherwise to live by other livelihoods … with all the risks of being confused as common mortals and then the respect suffers,” says a disappointed Frédéric Ndayishimiye.

* Photo credit: UN High Commission on Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/thumb3/5acfcdd34.jpg
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: LJUBAV I ŽIVOT: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance

The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and an EVS Volunteer at Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina with the project “People BeyONd Borders” (Erasmus + Program).

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Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, a active citizen and was a participant in the Youth Exchange “Get up – crossing borders” in Klösterbuch devoted to the current refugee situation in Europe, financed by OFAJ and organized by the Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina, Treibhaus and Le Petit Graine. Nina was always willing to contribute, share her opinion and also her story of being a baby refugee from Krajina (part of Croatia) in a very emotional Living Library related to the topic.

We met afterwards for coffee and čvarci in a hostel in the downtown of Novi Sad to catch up and hear more about her story. After an hour or so, her story become the story of the family and the story of a house, of Glina, of Yugoslavia and war. Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey and those years of ethnic conflict with full conscience. We shared a lovely Sunday afternoon in Bukovac, suburb of Novi Sad, under the first snows of January, sheltered by the warmth of the fireplace, cheese pita and the words of the matriarch of the family, Branka. We remembered the Youth Exchange, talked about the future, presented each other cultures and culinary, but most of all remembered and reminisced.

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First Chapter:

How war does not stop life (or love)

In this chapter, we visit a student dealing with increasing discrimination and tension before the explosion of conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia, faced with the need to go back home because of her nationality.

branka-bwBranka was a young and idealist student of Law and Literature in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, still part of Yugoslavia, a country that is no more. A country where people “were living together, very peacefully. We walked together, we would go out together, we got married between the two nationalities.” Her dream, which the war would break, was to become a lawyer to protect woman in trouble, something she knew she wanted to do since she was 19.

She was, back then, the youngest student in the faculty, a student with an open mind and an open heart, everything the growing nationalistic wave in the republics of Yugoslavia loathed. Despite being considered a good friend and witty, one word on her index (document of identification of students) was now a problem: Nationality – Serb. But at that moment, the choice to hide and write Yugoslav, as others Serbs did, was not an option, unwilling to lie about her origins:

“When I was student, in the index, on the subject ’nationality’ I put ’Serb’. That’s what I am. And I got problems. Lots of Serbs lied, and put Yugoslav. But they knew, if you wrote ‘nationality Yugoslav’, Yugoslav is not nationality, it is citizenship. I did not hide that.

In this case, I am from Glina and they asked ’Are you Serb?’, I said ‘Yes, I am’, when people asked where I came from. They openly ask where I am from, even if I did not do anything wrong.”

She had indeed done something “wrong”. She was Serb on a country that had, through the centuries, shared a history of rivalry and conflict with Serbia, quieted down by the cry of the old Marshal Tito: “brotherhood and unity”. A decade after his death, conflict exploded in 1991, as the dream country of before was shattered with brutality. Her national identity, as for many other citizens from all the republics of Yugoslavia, was now a problem, where before it did not matter.

“There were a lot of soldiers in Zagreb and I felt very unsafe there. I would hear: ‘Last night someone was killed’. And in that period, lots of families escaped from Zagreb to Serbia, Krajina or Bosnia.” She had no option, but to go back to Glina, her hometown, where a majority of Croatian Serbs lived. Law, Zagreb and a future as a Women’s Rights lawyer were no longer on the table. Survival was in order.

Branka was now living on the newly formed Republic of Serbian Krajina, an entity that pursued autonomy from the government of Croatia, which in its turn, was seeking independency from Yugoslavia. She was now citizen of a Republic which was not internationally recognized, stuck in an enclave surrounded by the opposing armies of Croats and Muslims, with documents from a country that had ceased to exist:

“We did not have valid documents, because the Republic of Serbia Krajina wasn’t accepted internationally. We were in a trap, surrounded by two sides, one side was Croatian, the other were the Muslim army.

And when a man from Krajina came to Belgrade, the police would arrest them and put them in the worst areas of war of Bosnia or Krajina. Women were allowed to go, but they took all the risks of travelling through Bosnia, where there was an ethnic war going on too.”

A united land was now divided by the lines of ethnic conflict. “One day, we were drinking together and partying and the other day, the war started”, as in the famous scene of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”. This status quo would last four years. It was war and you could die every day. But life (and love) go on.

“Four years is a long period, in that period you have to eat, like, love, lots of things. You cannot stop for four years and feel nothing and do nothing.”

On one night, after a car accident, Branka came to her dad’s kafana for a drink where she was to meet her husband to be Nino, an emergency car driver who witnessed “a lot of terrible things” during the war. Love happens amidst tragedy, as in joy. In two days they chose the names of their children. In three months, they would get married. A marriage celebrated cooking “without electricity and with the ingredients we had”. Food was scarce, it was war and you could die every day. How do you plan a future with the person you love?

How do you decide to have children? How do you “live”?

“It’s not easy to explain, because you love someone a lot and you are so conscious that you can lose him. I don’t know, that’s life. Ljubav i Život. Love and life.”

To be continued…

Disclaimer: This text does not attempt to take any sides in a war that involved brothers and sisters, people united under one flag, and although retelling the story of this civil war trough the perspective of Serbian refugees, it is not meant to isolate them from the wider victims of this conflict who are, in the words of Branka, “the people that were unprepared”.

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Firewood, a source of conflict between Burundian refugees and local residents

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about the experiences of Nizeyimana Edouard, a Burundian refugee living in DR Congo. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Interviewee Identity
Name: Nizeyimana Edouard
Age: 26 years old
Sex: M
Marital status: Married, Father of one child
Status: Burundian refugee from Camp Lusenda

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Summary:

Nizeyimana Edouard is part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees who settled in the Lusenda camp in 2015. The convoy’s settlement in this camp experienced disturbances which were, at first, notably related to their cohabitation of the area with local residents. At its roots, the issues were caused by the local inhabitants’ anger over the destructive effect the refugees’ practice of felling trees immoderately had on the environment and their fields. This problem found a peaceful solution through the mediation of UNHCR, its partners, and the local administrative authorities and through the use of “Ziganya”, small artificial embers stoves called “biomass briquette”, which are used instead of firewood.

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The socio-political situation in Burundi was intensely critical in 2015 when the President of the Republic, Pierre Nkurunziza, chose to run for the third term. This decision prompted all the political parties to join with civil society and the people to denounce what was described as a violation of the constitution and the Arusha Agreement. This situation has since escalated into unrelenting protests, targeted assassinations, and night abductions.

This is why Nizeyimana Edouard had to flee to DR Congo: “The young people of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, commonly called imbonerakuré, did not stand anyone from an opposition party or be neutral for those not interested in politics like me… many of my relatives have been victims.” In April 2015, he embarked with his family on a boat to a transit centre in Luvungi (DR Congo) where they were welcomed by the National Commission for Refugees (CNR) and then transferred to Lusenda Camp.

At first, a less troubled installation in the Lusenda camp

After Nizeyimana Edouard settled in Lusenda camp in 2015 as part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees, he was elected head of one of the villages. “As soon as we arrived,” says Edouard, “the UNHCR had already prepared tents for us and gave us food consisting of small weight, the beans, the corn flour, the rice and the oil, and also a very small quantity of firewood that was sometimes not enough to prepare food for a single day.” Refugees were formally prohibited from selling property received from UNHCR or other humanitarian partners operating in Lusenda camp.

Thus, everyone was trying their best to content themselves with the gifts they received from humanitarian organisations, especially the fact that “the environment was so strange to us that we did not collaborate with the residents for the entire first month of our installation.”

This way of life isolated the refugees from the rest of the community in the surrounding area, which was not without consequences; local residents tended to consider themselves discriminated against in that assistance was only provided to refugees.

Difficult cohabitation between Burundian refugees and Lusenda local residents

The donations the refugees received were not enough. Edouard admits, “Beyond what we received from the UNHCR, we went to surrounding forests to get firewood, some to heat their pots and others to sell, without imagining the danger that this could present.” Edouard explains that it was only afterwards that the residents started lamenting that “before our arrival they had beautiful hills, but they are now being denuded because of the woodcutting by the refugees.”

In 2016, a violent confrontation caused by the cutting of trees by the refugees arose, and a refugee died. Conflict expanded in other ways as well. “The natives had marched against the policy of the UNHCR that they considered discriminatory towards them in that they did not benefit from any humanitarian assistance, yet they need it even if they are not refugees,” adds Edouard with a smile.

Peaceful resolution of disputes

Solving this issue required the intervention of several actors including UNHCR, the local administrative authorities, and the National Refugee Commission (CNR). “We were invited to the common meetings to be aware of peaceful cohabitation,” informs Edouard. Both the local administrative authorities and the heads of the refugee villages in the Lusenda camp took part in these meetings, and they committed themselves, each one as far as they were concerned, to widely spread the message by repeating it to their subordinates.

Strategies were employed to bring the parties involved in the conflict closer together. “Beyond prohibiting us from going to cut the woods in forests, it was organised football games in common, frequenting the same market and the same churches according to one’s religion … and it was created a structure called ‘Local Dynamics for Peace’, in the framework of which we could sit with the residents and exchange about our mutual problems, and we were forced to plant at least one tree each one at home camp,” says Nizeyimana Edouard complacently.

Edouard says that in order to solve the problem at the source, “We recommended that the UNHCR provides us with sufficient firewood to no longer suffer from food preparation difficulties, but it has never happened.”

As an alternative, some humanitarian organisations came to make the refugees aware of improved stoves. “Many refugees have obtained furnaces made of mud surrounded by a round-shaped metal with a hole of air, and using artificial embers called biomass briquette, from the mixture of goat excrement, ash mixed with lubricant and palm crumbs”, explains Edouard.

In the Lusenda camp, this kind of stove is commonly called “Ziganya” and is used to very quickly cook any kind of food. The advent of this kitchen utensil has certainly overtaken the dangerous and environmentally destructive practice of cutting wood. “Although these stoves are now locally made by refugees, not everyone has the financial means to buy them, so some still prefer to buy embers from local residents instead of going in the bush to cut the woods, and others still wait for firewood to be provided by the UNHCR in sufficient quantity”, informs Edouard. Even so, he praises the peace found in these terms: “To this day, beyond that each of us keeps his natural identity, there is no more open conflict really between us and the local residents except that where there are people, there is a possibility of conflict.”

* Photo credit: WFP/Leonora Baumann, https://www.wfp.org/stories/market-day-refugee-camp-market-democratic-republic-congo
Refugee Stories, Women and Peacemaking, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: The trauma faced from Uganda to England

The following interview was done by Clare Shanley, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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When I met Angela, she introduced herself and told me that she was born in Uganda. I asked her why, in her opinion, she left Uganda? She told me: “The reason why I am here is because of our government; it wasn’t good for my family. They killed my mother and my father. When I was there, they kidnapped us and took us somewhere they called the safe house, but it was not safe. In there, you have to fight, until you get what you want. They can do anything they want to do and you can’t say anything. When you survive, you have to thank God. When I was there, I was waiting for my day to die. The man took me because I had a story – one of my friends used to say bad things to him. That day, he took one of my other close friends; my friend died. Then he killed another lady, because she was fighting for that girl. That was my day to go. The man wanted to do silly things, and I didn’t want to. I said no; I told him that if he wanted to kill me, he can do that. I was scared; he left me there and that was my escape. I went to somebody who knew my father; they did everything to bring me here.”

Angela then explained the journey from Uganda to England. She described how it was very difficult to get here. “I came with somebody’s passport,” she explained. “I do not know who that person is; they only told me their name. I didn’t know their date of birth or anything. At the airport, they asked me, what is your name? I said the name in the passport; it was not my name. Only God knows why that was the only question that they asked me. From Uganda to Heathrow, they asked me the same question, but they asked me another question when I was in Heathrow. What is your date of birth? And I didn’t know it. I looked at the lady and I began to cry because I didn’t know. Then she said okay, you can go – and I just go. I went to the social service; I explained to them what had happened to me and why I am here, and they said they could give me somewhere to stay until I went to the home office — and that’s why I am here. From Uganda to Heathrow I came with a person, but I don’t know her. After we came through the immigration, she took the passport and I never saw her again.”

I then asked Angela if she applied for asylum. “Yes”, she replied, “I did apply for asylum; the home office said no, we can’t believe you. I was struggling a lot for seven years. Afterwards when they stopped saying no, after a long time of suffering, I eventually got my status. I have kids. I have three kids, one who is 11, one who is 9 and one who is 7.”

I asked Angela what her experience of settling in the UK was like. “It was hard,” she described. “Some people are good and some people are not. Where I lived before, with the social service, I had a social worker. If you were lucky, sometimes the social worker was good, but mine wasn’t good. She was pretending to be a Christian, but she wasn’t good. Every season they would give us money; she used to take our money. In my situation I was given £100; only when I was lucky was she giving me £50. She took the other £50.

“One time when I went there to visit, she wasn’t there. It was someone else, and it was the manager. I talked to him, and he said that is was not right, that they should have given me £100. She wasn’t there the next day. Since that time I was struggling. When I had my first boy, my boyfriend left me because he was scared. I told him that we have been though a lot of things, so we can get through this. He said no, and he left. So I was struggling with my situation at that time; I didn’t have a status. Every time when I went to the court, they said no. I was upset. I couldn’t do anything, and the money they were giving me was not enough.

I asked Angela if she faced any discrimination when she came to the UK. “Yes,” she replied. “When I did, I would just remember that some people don’t have anything to eat. I remembered what my life was like before. One day I went to the shop to buy a drink for my son; it was hot. They refused to serve me, because I am black. It’s in the city centre. I walked out of the shop and a lady who was a customer in the shop offered to get the drink for me. I gave her money. She went into the shop and she gave that shopkeeper money, but the shopkeeper wouldn’t take the money because it was from me. The lady bought the money to me and she used her own money. I was thankful to her. When I arrived, my English wasn’t good and I used to explain to the people but they didn’t understand. But after a while, I got there; then everything was perfect. If you learn English, everything is okay.”

Angela then told me what helped her settle in to British society. She explained, “When I was in London, there was a lady called Angie from children’s rights; she was my friend. When I moved out of London, I was in a new place and I didn’t know what to do. I called Angie and she told me that there is a lady called Sue who has a charity and that I could go there and help her. They directed me to the refugee centre. I sat there and I saw a lady come over with another man. That lady Angie rang Sue and told her that there is somebody called Angela there and she asked her to help me. When she came to the refugee centre, I didn’t know what happened; maybe God directed her. She came to the refugee centre and asked if I was Angela. I said yes; she was so happy. Since that day, Sue has been my everything; she did everything for me, from nappies, milk, clothing, everything.”

I then asked how British society is different from society in Uganda. She explained how it is “very different”. She continued, “In Uganda, they don’t have law; you can die easily. Okay, here you can die easily but in Uganda, if you steal a sweet, they can kill you straight away. In Uganda they don’t care, even if you are on the street and have kids. In Uganda, there is land; you can do anything you want to do, but people are lazy. They don’t want to go in the villages; they want to be in the city. The government takes everything; if you are poor, you are poor and if you are rich, you are rich.”

Angela then told me the story about her brother from when they were in Uganda. “We were together,” she explained, “and he had got a fever, so I told one of the ladies that were looking after us that my brother was sick. She told me that he was not the only one dying in there, that everyone in there dies, and that it was not my home. I said, is there any way that you could help him? She said to me, if he wants to die, he can die; there is nothing that I can do. I said okay. I didn’t know what to do.”

“The next day, they took him somewhere. I thought maybe that they took him to the hospital. Two days later, they brought him back. I asked him if he was okay; he said no. I asked him if they gave him medicine; he said no. They only tortured me.” Angela described how he told her not to worry, that he would be okay, “I was strong,” she told me, beginning to cry. “He told me that he didn’t want to put his head on the floor because it was too hard, so I put his head on my lap, and I made him comfortable. We sang, and I was thinking that he was sleeping. Then around one a clock, a lady came to me, the one who I used to call my mum. She said let’s go. I said no, I want to see my brother. She told me that she was sorry, but that my brother had gone. I said where? She told me that I had to be strong. We went into a small room where she told me that my brother had died. When we got back, they knew he was dead. They covered him in a blanket and they took him. That was the end. I got nightmares all the time after that, when I was sleeping, I used to see them torturing him. I got a psychiatrist until those memories went away.

“Before they took my father, they beat him hard, and he couldn’t walk. They forced him to walk, but he couldn’t. They beat him until they broke his legs and then they wanted him to walk. So when I closed my eyes I used to see him crawling on the floor.” Angela went on to say that those things make her stronger. “I know that I do not have anybody, but I am happy that I have my kids.”

Finally, I asked Angela what her plans for the future are. “The future,” she repeats smiling. “I plan that I want to work, so that I can give my children a house. I know that one day I will die, and I want to leave the house to them.”

Angela’s story is just one example of the traumas that refugees are faced with throughout all stages of the process: before they leave their country, the journey and then integrating into a new society. Angela’s courage and strength shine throughout her story and helped her get through all of the unimaginable things that she encountered. For me, Angela’s trust and faith in God stood out from the interview; it was the thing that kept her going. She believed that if she trusted in God, she could get through anything and whatever hardship she was going through, God would get her through it. This same faith and strength will stay with Angela throughout her life and in the next stages of her journey.

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Clare Shanley is a teenager from England who has a passion for literature and writing. She hopes to continue in education and, in the future, have a career surrounding these two fields and also continue with peace and justice work. 
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Helping refugees along the Balkan Route (Part 3)

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The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. This is Part 3 of a 3 part interview. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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We talked about your job and how you deal personally with the difficulties and also about the plight of refugees in Serbia, but what was the reaction of the media to the refugees and their presence in the country?

When the refugee crisis began, there was a lot of media, following what was going on. Now, the refugee crisis is covered only by a few of them, and generally they report only when something special happens, mainly, bad things or accidents. This winter, media reported about the bad conditions in the barracks, behind the Belgrade bus station, but now you can find independent journalists, who come to take a photo or interview and make some personal refugee stories, but there is a lack of media cover of the refugee crisis, generally.

Media behaviour about the refugee crisis in Serbia is positive sometimes, sometimes negative, but generally the situation in Serbia is OK, because I think our government did a good job in the beginning. They said we are an open country, which wants to help and that had an influence on public opinion, which generally has a positive opinion about refugees. And the media played a big role in that. We have less positive comments about refugees, but the situation is OK for now. If we look into the future, we need to use media to raise awareness about refugees’ issues.

And is the reaction of Serbian citizens?

As I mentioned, in the media and from local population, we can hear also negative comments and probably there will be more in the future. The local population is not sufficiently informed about the situation with refugees, why they come, and also about plans for what will happen in the future. Are they going to stay here? Under what conditions? And when it mixes with prejudices and fears, that can create a bad atmosphere in society.

You need to explain to local people who are these refugees, why they flee and to introduce them to each other. Introduce both sides to a new culture, customs and traditions. One of the options how to do this is through media and through personal and human stories, through objective, fair and ethical reporting. And, all of this needs to be done systematically, the government needs to be part of this, to have a plan how to do this and to support the organizations involved.

Due to the economic situation and because it is very difficult to find a job many young people are leaving Serbia. The poverty rate is high and when people say “we cannot even help our citizens, so how we can help refugees”, they are somehow correct. Due to fear for their personal existence, not knowing the situation, prejudices and so on, local people sometimes have negative comments about refugees. On the other hand, we have very positive comments and people want to help the refugees, precisely because we know how it is to be a refugee and how it is to live in poverty. We just need to work to reduce prejudice, raising awareness and tolerance.

I have complaints almost every day, but I also heard them in the past, when I worked with Roma people. They usually asked me “why don’t you help ‘our’ people?”. Then I just ask them “Who is ‘our’ people? Are Roma people ‘our’ people?” And then they don’t say anything. To those, who complain, I always tell to get involved and that they have the opportunity to help some of ‘our’ people, whoever these ‘our’ people are.

I would like you also to address some of the myths regarding refugees and their staying or passing by the routes to Europe, namely the questions of their use of “smartphones”, claiming people who use them are reach and aren’t really refugees; the visibility of adult men, compared to children and women, making it appear they are the majority of refugees (and the fear they they are terrorists); and finally the way people fear “their own” culture will be lost with the arrival of refugees?

Smartphones are one of biggest myths about refugees. People usually say something like “if they have a good phone, they need to have money and if they have money, they cannot be a refugee”. You can also hear a story like “if you are a young boy why do you escape from your home, if you can stay and fight for your country?”

When I try to explain to other people why this is wrong, I tell them to just try to put themselves in that situation. I did that in my Ted Talk. I just ask people in the audience to think about their home and to try to remember everything important there, every detail that makes their house a home. Then just to stop and to go back, because they have only three minutes to pack just one bag, only the most important things, because they have to leave the house, as their life depends on it. Then, I asked them what would they put in that bag? Are they going to take their smartphones? Today, you can’t do almost anything without smartphones. It’s useful for GPS, if you have to cross the border through the forest, for example. Or you just use it to call your family, on FB or Viber. It is necessary.

And, if you are a young boy, and you don’t want to go to war, you have all right to do that. When refugees talk with us, for example, refugees from Afghanistan, they tell us that, in Afghanistan, they need to go to war to fight with someone, but they don’t know on which side they will be, because everything is a big mess.

And sometimes there’s no war but refugees may be facing persecution or hardship in their home country…

People, who are coming from territories which are not in war, they live very badly. For me, it’s a good reason that you can go somewhere to find a better situation. Young people of my generation from Serbia also go abroad to work, if they cannot find a job. They finish school, they get good grades and, after that, they get a job as waiters and just decide to go. Almost all my friends now are in Germany or they work on cruise ships like waiters, so for me, that’s a very legal reason to go. Furthermore, people use this refugee crisis to leave their country, some of them are migrants, some of them are refugees, but they all deserve a chance for a better life.

Do you think this fear and the systematic rejection of many governments of people coming from these countries related to the fact that some of them have a different skin colour or a different religion than the majority of societies in Europe ?

Of course, there is fear of something that is not familiar to us, but learning about each other, putting people on the same table to eat or just play cards together, you can solve some problems. This situation now is very massive, so you need to have some strategy on a national or international level. It’s not in our handling. We do everything we can here in Miksaliste, now, but we need to speak about all this, we need to think about this and prepare some strategy.

In you TED talk, you spoke about the challenges of accommodating the 6000 refugees that may stay in Serbia. According to you, what can be done and what should be done, other than some of the individual solutions you alluded to, not only to avoid discrimination and resentment by the “native” population, while also allowing these kids and adults equal opportunities in Serbia and, more broadly, in Europe?

For now, we can speak only about the situation in the camps and if we have enough food and clothes. We don’t have the time or capacity to think further, because this is still an emergency situation. But, in the future, we need to think about what these people really need and how we can avoid prejudice, how we will organize school, in which language, Serbian or English, or Arabic or Farsi, Pashto, Urdu. How we will help them to find a job and so on. In some places you have already kids who are going to school, but I think we need still need to do more than now.

Should this strategy come from above? From the international community and governments?

Yes, because this crisis involves a lot of countries. First, we need to have an international strategy for refugee crisis, but we still don’t see anything on the paper, regarding what will happen in the future for this people. For now, everything is still, as we say in Serbia, in the “air”. We still don’t know how many refugees will be here tomorrow. We don’t know if other countries will open the borders and if all refugees will leave or a lot of new ones will come. In these conditions, it is almost impossible to plan anything long-term. People’s needs are changing every day and it is very difficult to organize.

And, to conclude, do you believe in the power of ordinary people to face, among other big problems in the world right now, this huge humanitarian crisis?

I think the most important thing we can do, it’s to show them that they are people, like we are. Just to talk is, sometimes, all they need. Sometimes it’s more helpful than anything, because they really need to feel like people and they need to feel that somebody understands them and someone wants to help them. For example, when we worked with Roma kids, it helps them when we teach them Serbian or English or German, but it’s more helpful when they feel that you are a friend. The same as now, when they know they will try to go on border, to try to cross, they come here to say goodbye, to hug some of us. They want to stay in contact and, usually, they say “thank you very much. If you come to Germany and if I’m there, call me”. So ordinary people can bring back faith into them, we cannot forget that we are all humans, just humans and nothing else. We are not Christians or Muslims, we are not from Serbia, Germany or Syria, but we are humans.  Show them that you are both the same, that we have compassion and help them when they need, that’s the most important.

Alexandre Fonseca is currently a volunteer assistant teacher at the Nicola Tesla Technical School in Belgrade, Serbia. Before, he was working as an European Voluntary Service volunteer in Ankara, Turkey and working as a Customer Support Agent in Athens, Greece. He believes that this project is a way to defend the right for everyone to travel and seek refuge wherever and whenever needed. He will be an EVS volunteer next year in Novi Sad aiming to raise awareness about the refugee crisis in Serbia and around the world. The YPJ project was a great way to learn about this crisis through personal stories and by connecting them to the bigger, sometimes messy and chaotic, picture.