Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: “LJUBAV I ŽIVOT”: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance [Part III]

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).

__________________________________________________

Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, an 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’ Center 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, Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey 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. The first and second part of the story can be found here and here.

___________________________________________________

Third Chapter:

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me

 “As if it wasn’t enough of war.”

In this chapter, like many times, things get better. We recover Branka’s family in Serbia, trying to pick up their lives in their new/old country, not before going through more trials and tribulations.

[Novi Sad, 5th of August 2018. The main square, right in front of the Cathedral, one of the trademarks of the city, is filled with gloomy posters of a dark time in the history of both Serbia and Croatia: Oluja / Operation Storm. The air is torrid, people stroll by lightly, in stark contrast with the mood in the square, set by the expressions on the pictures, captured 23 years ago.

It’s hard to tell if the tourists who pass casually by know or want to know about Oluja. In contrast, you can easily see the ones who are aware of it, those who have lived it or heard about it closely; those to whom these images cause their own private storm. For them, it’s still a living, breathing history.]

Open a newspaper, flick through the TV or go online. You have seen the masses of people forced to take shelter in schools, gyms or any other large public building. For all the times you have seen it (and you have seen it a million times), it is never less unfortunate. Particularly when the causes are human-made.

After having been persecuted by an army, facing the heat of August and the strain of many days on the road without anything, Branka and her family are trying to accommodate themselves in a gym of a high school in Ruma, near the border between Croatia and Serbia. Four years of conflict, three days of persecution and finally safety, a safety mired by its own precariousness. The place was offering just the bare minimum so they could rest, sleep and eat. As Branka says “it was nothing more than just a building full of other refugees, like us”. The conditions were not enough, so the family had to move on, in hope of a better place:

When we came to Belgrade, the city was closed for the refugees, because we were the last wave of refugees. There had been refugees from Bosnia and Croatia earlier and when we came Belgrade was ‘closed’. They were sending people to Kosovo. My husband parents’ went to Kosovo and they saw that the war might be starting over there too, so they came back a couple of months later. We survived lots of things and after all that, you still have to lose your men to go to Kosovo. As if it wasn’t enough of war.

The family found a shelter in Karavukovo, “a really small village” in the province of Vojvodina. Nina’s grandmother had a brother from Germany and his friend heard about their situation. Branka remembers they told them: “We have an empty house over there, so you can come in and stay until you know what are you going to do’”. It was a house, a shelter, a refuge and peace, but once again, not without hardships, as Branka recalls:

We stayed for over a year at the place of an old German couple, who kept the house after WWII and lend it to us without any fee. It was hard, because we almost did not have electricity, I was washing clothes outside when it was -10º. Then Nino and me started to work making bags for potatoes. It was a really hard job, because we were doing it with our bare hands, which would often be bloody.

However it may be, for Branka and her family, help came. “Some really good people, our neighbors, told us: ‘we have our garden and everything we have in there, we will share with you’. And that was the first friendship we made.”

Sadly, once again, Nino was still a refugee, now not escaping his homeland, but running away from the paramilitary services who were forcibly recruiting men, as he tried to escape the fate of so many that were deployed to fight a foregone war in Bosnia.

“My husband, after that, escaped to Belgrade and hid with his cousins. A while after we got to Karavukovo, there was a fire in the kitchen. He ran to put it off and burned his hands and head and almost died. He moved to Belgrade, but he didn’t…he couldn’t see the doctor, because they would put him in Bosnia again. He spent three months in Belgrade at his cousins’ house as a refugee. A refugee in refuge.”

What is it about hardship, about the most catastrophic of scenarios that brings out the best out of people? Is humanity doomed to meet its worst faith, before human kindness swallows our shallowness and egotism? Or is this belief that the best of people will come out from their darkest moments just a perception, a mere theater of shadows? Isn’t it true that people will also profit in and from tragedy? After all the tempests, the thunders, the menace, how much do you have or can go through for the happiest day of your life to be the one you finally get to settle?

One year later, we got a small house in a village named Srpski Miletić. It is a settlement for refugees, made by the Norway government. And we got it and it was the happiest day of my life. A small house, 39m2, but it was our house. I remember the day when we were going to get the key of the house.

As Branka explains:

For us, it was a huge thing. We had two rooms, living room, bathroom and kitchen. It was first 4 of us (my husband, my son and daughter and me) and then my grandmother come to our house too, because she was old and needed care.

Branka recalls little Nina’s mischief on the day her family got the key to the house:

“She was a kid, and she was playing outside. She fell down and her knees were bloody. I wanted her to be nicely dressed, but she just wanted to celebrate that moment of joy, on her own way – playing outside. It was a really beautiful moment.”

After all the tempests, the thunders, the menace, did things get better? This is a strong family, that’s all I know.

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: “LJUBAV I ŽIVOT”: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance [Part II]

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).

__________________________________________________

Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, an 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’ Center 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, Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey 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. The first part of the story can be found here.

___________________________________________________

Second Chapter:

Summer Storm

“I have to say that, after all, I have no hate in my heart.

I have learned not to hate anyone.” – Branka Kemera

“About 150-200 000 Krajina Serbs retreated into Bosnia […]

The 450-year-old Serbian community in Croatia

had effectively ceased to exist.”

 – Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan

In this chapter, we catch up with Branka after four years of intense conflict in Glina, part of the back then Republic of Serbian Krajina, a rebel republic situated within the territory of Croatia.

Branka was no longer a student, she had gotten married in 1992 and become a mother in 1994. One year later, the war would come to an end, after four long years. Was Branka still an idealist? It is hard to tell. What changes when you witness war on a daily basis? When you give birth in the middle of such a conflict? What do you feel? How do you keep yourself going? For some people, life is not meant to be easy. But to Branka, these trials and tribulations were never a sign to stop.

On the contrary, the only way it made sense for her was to press forward and try harder, even in the unfairness of war. She created a business with her friend Radojka, sewing and selling clothes, because “people have to wear the clothes, even in the war”. To find food for the family, now larger with baby Nina, Branka’s father-in-law was a hunter, providing some nourishment by this means. Branka also tried to carry on with her studies of Literature in a branch of the University of Belgrade, which had opened near Glina. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources and disorganization of that branch, she was unable to continue.

In 1995, however, the Republic of Serbian Krajina was not only a problem for the people living in it, but for politicians in all sides of the conflict. Franko Tuđman, Croatian President, was, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich state “faced with a quandary: how to reestablish Croatian authority in the Krajina and rid himself of the Serbian minority in the area without alienating the international community”.

According to the same authors, by then, Slobodan Milošević started sensing that the “international community would no longer entertain the idea of a Greater Serbia, so he temporarily washed his hands of Republika Srpska [Serb-dominated Republic in Bosnia] and permanently of the Krajina”. In that summer, the Krajina experiment would come to a tragic end. Civilians, as so many times during the wars in Yugoslavia, would again be part of the battle chessboard.

Following the success of operation Flash, the Croatian Army was convinced that it was possible to recover the control of all of Krajina. This military operation, launched at the beginning of May 1995, inflicted a major blow into the army of the Krajina Republic, showing “the reticence of Belgrade to support the Serbs against Croatian action”, as John Ashbrook and Spencer Bakich suggest. A position seconded by Branka’s husband, Nino, to whom “the Krajina army was ordered from Belgrade to pull back with all military equipment. And if the army is to pull back, all civilians should leave their places, as well. If the Serbian army had stayed in Croatia, there would have been an even more violent war”.

For the Croat officials, it showed that it was also possible to “reimpose Croatian sovereignty over all the regions in revolt and, simultaneously, to rid these areas of their Serbian populations”, Ashbrook and Bakich write. As a result, the western part of Slavonia [around the city of Okučani] was now controlled by the Croatian Government, while according to the authors of Yugoslav Wars, Nigel Thomas and Krunoslav Mikulan, “almost all 15000 Serb population fled across the Sava River into Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

It was nothing more than a prelude to what was coming. Four months later, in the first days of August, the army of Croatia launched Operation Storm, which shifted the military power of the war, and played an essential role in facilitating the peace agreements that would end the war, while also creating a humanitarian disaster for the Serbs living in the region. Those who could escape, did so, in fear of retaliation. Among them, Branka and her family: husband, her one year-old daughter Nina, mother and brother, plus both Nina’s grandfathers.

We traveled from Croatia to Serbia, 12 days, without water, without food. Terrible. It was August, in a high temperature and Nina was so nervous, she cried every time, so scared.

When we tried to escape there was a column and one Croatian plane bombed us. There was a terrible noise, because the aircraft fled so low until us. After that Nina has a terrible fear of airplanes.

Every day, you were scared for people who are close to you, for your family. If they are going to be alive or dead. That is the biggest scare.

A family of eight on the run, escaping in any possible way:

We were surrounded by the Croatian army and our life was in danger all the time, Nina and I almost did not escape. Without the help of a Serbian soldier, we would not survive.

We had car, tractor, bus. But no fuel. Also people got stuck, because they had no way to go. I had to beg some old woman to give me 20 liters of fuel to put it in the car. Because of that, she traveled with us.”

At the same time, one local radio, Branka recalls, was telling people that it would not be a problem to stay and that for the Serbs in the region, everything was under control. Others did not want to leave their homes and their place, after living their whole life in Krajina. Sadly, not everyone who wanted to, could escape. Among those who stayed was Branka’s grandmother, who after surviving WWII and losing everyone dear to her, was again witnessing war at home.

We could not put our grandma in the car and she had to go with another family. They got stuck and the Croatian army arrested them. She was shot.

When we came to Serbia, we tried to find her. We asked the Red Cross, UN, when we passed to Serbia, we asked also people: ‘Where is she, where is she?’ And we thought, after a couple of months, that she was killed.

After half a year, we got a letter from Croatia saying that our grandmother was alive. She was shot, she had two bullets in the chest that crossed all the way to the back. She was thrown in a hole with other dead people, but someone noticed that she was breathing and got her out of there.

She stayed alive and we cried when we got that letter. Red Cross transported her from Croatia to our house. She was living with us until 2005, when she passed away the day before Orthodox Christmas.

We tried to accuse Croatia Army of that crime, but we didn’t succeed. No one helped us, and no one was interested in the situation. Our grandma was about 75 years old.”

Fearing for the life of their grandmother and confronted by the harsh conditions of the exodus, they had to keep on. Their first stop was Banja Luka, capital of the Serb controlled part of Bosnia, Srpska Republic:

In Bosnia, we stopped in Banja Luka, because we had and still have some relatives over there. This was the meeting point for the whole family, just to see if everybody is alive and that everybody was there.”

Everyone was safe, but they were still “on the road. Without money, shoes, food, without anything.” No more words are needed for now.

To be continued…

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps.

Refugee Stories, Social Issues

I was a stranger and you took my child from me

by Tony Magliano

In the last judgment scene of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus sends a severe warning that hell awaits those who ignore meeting the essential human needs of the poor and vulnerable – and thus likewise, ignore him.

And in reference to those who display a lack of hospitality toward migrants and refugees, Jesus warns “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.” Now … just imagine the indignation expressed in his words “I was stranger and not only did you not welcome me, you took my child from me!”

The Trump administration’s inhumane and unchristian immigration policy of “zero-tolerance” –  stepped-up apprehension and detention of migrants/refugees often fleeing armed conflict and drug gang violence, mass assembly-line criminal court trials, jail sentences imposed, and deportation back to the violence refugees were fleeing – was started under President George W. Bush and continued under President Obama (see: https://bit.ly/2OZwYye).

Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy for Kino Border Initiative (see: https://www.kinoborderinitiative.org/) told me the U.S. practice of criminally charging refugees for entry into the country is against international law as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol – of which the U.S. is a signatory. The Convention states that refugees have “the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State [nation],” and that they have the right to work, education, public relief and assistance (see: https://bit.ly/2Ndn8IR).

But the Trump administration’s policy of systematically separating refugee families was a new and even lower attempt to fearfully deter fleeing families from entering the U.S.

Children as young as 18-months-old have reportedly been forcefully taken away from their parents and placed in government-run caged facilities (see: https://bit.ly/2t83fuO).

But a federal court ordered the Trump administration to end its policy of family separation and to reunite all children with their parents.

Advocacy Officer Esmeralda Lopez of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (see: http://refugees.org/) told me that 2,654 migrant children were separated from their parents in total, and according to a recent federal report 565 children still remain separated from their parents (see: https://nyti.ms/2MT7Yf3).

And to make this sad unjust situation worse, the Trump administration appears to have no idea how to reunite the more than 400 parents it has already deported with their children who are in U.S.

While the court order now bans family separation, it will not keep the Trump administration from continuing its heartless “zero-tolerance” policy toward suffering refugees. That will only come from massive political pressure from us.

Adding injury to insult, the Trump administration cut $300 million in funding to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency which provides emergency assistance and basic human services to Palestinian refugees (see: https://bit.ly/2PuKvzf).

But the U.S. is not the only economically developed nation to turn its back on most of the world’s 25 million refugees, 40 million internally displaced people and 3 million asylum-seekers (see: https://www.unrefugees.org/refugee-facts/statistics/).

Bulgaria, Hungry, Slovenia, Macedonia, Austria and France (funded by the U.K.) have all recently built barriers to keep out refugees (see: https://bit.ly/2d3jscf).

War, drug gangs, the flow of weapons, militarism, individual and corporate greed, poverty, lack of comprehensive immigration reform legislation, nationalism – as in “America first,” and a secularism that has little place for God are among the root-causes that are forcing our brothers and sisters to seek safer havens.

Let’s us commit ourselves to up-rooting these poisonous weeds and sow seeds of true Christian welcome.

* Photo from the Dallas Morning News.
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: “The victims of natural disaster: displaced people? Yes, but actually forgotten.”

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists based in Uvira (South Kivu), in Congo, DRC.

_________________________________

Summary:
The story starts by the author observation. It’s about the displaced people, victims of flooding by the waters of Nyangara Pond, in DR Congo, South Kivu Province, in Uvira territory. The waters of this pond had left their natural bed before pouring into the residential area of Kilomoni and destroying many private dwellings whose victims had moved into a chapel of the Catholic Parish of the area. Later, to facilitate the liturgical activities, a site was built using tarpaulins donated by a Xaverian Father. To date, besides the aids obtained two months ago, these displaced people do not know how to go about it so as to go back to their life at home, because of the lack of livelihood, security and protection by the Congolese State and entitled organizations.

The observation…

Once upon a time, in June 2018, when I was heading for Bujumbura, the Burundian capital, located a few tens of kilometers from the city of Uvira, in the province of South Kivu, DR Congo, I caught a glimpse of the tents built in tarpaulins, looking like military barracks, at the edge of the Congolese road leading to the border with the Burundi.

As a result, I was curious to know what it was all about, but I could not stop the vehicle that was carrying us because everyone seemed in a hurry for his business. At my sides, none of the passengers around me could tell me what it really was because everyone was asking everyone.

Two days after my stay in Bujumbura…

As I knew that in the quarter where I saw these tents there is a Burundian refugee transit center, all my thoughts went in the direction of an extension of this center, but still it was necessary to verify. So one good morning, I went to the site to inquire.

As soon as I arrived, I found a mother carrying her child on the back, getting out of a tent to go into the shade of an unfinished building located two meters from the site. I approached her and introduced myself before proposing to her a conversation which she accepted willingly.

Me and her under the shadow of the unfinished building…

Me: How are you?

Her: We are a bit good despite this dramatic situation that has hit us.

Me: Dramatic situation…! Would you like to tell me about it?

Her: In March 2018, our houses had collapsed due to the flood waters of the Pond “Nyangara” which had overflowed before pouring into the residential area of Kilomoni. And many of us, victims of this disaster, had nowhere to go. That’s how we came to take refuge in the chapel of the Catholic parish of Kilomoni.

Me: It was a natural disaster then …. but how did you survive this cascading collapse of the flooded houses?

Her: Oh! That’s the wonder of God and it’s no secret to anyone. At the beginning of this year 2018, heavy rains were felling regularly over most of Uvira’s territory. The waters of the pond “Nyangara” gradually swelled, some could see how their homes were flooding, and others were surprised to see the water rises from the bottom of their houses and fill them all in a few hours. Noticing this situation, we tried to save what we could by starting with the little children before taking care of the furniture. A pity that many did not succeed because most of the houses were built in adobe, therefore much more fragile in contact with the water and yielded easily. That’s how many goods had perished.

Me: Who did welcome you in the chapel and how did you leave there to live in these tents built of tarpaulins?

Her: Initially, when we slept in the chapel, it was on the authorization of a reverend Xaverian Father as a sign of compassion with the victims of the natural disaster, while in the meantime, the liturgical activities took place there during the day. Thus, to free space, we asked the Reverend Father to provide us with tarpaulins to temporarily build tents in the enclosure of the parish that was not invaded by the water. That’s how he paid us tarpaulins for the construction of these tents in which we live today.

Me: How do you live in this site?

Her: We live with difficulties, because it was only in April and May 2018 that we received visits from certain politico-administrative authorities and some humanitarian organizations. After identification of all the victims, some NGOs gave us living goods including beans and rice; another one had built us a latrine. But also, some administrative authorities had given us kitchen utensils, soaps and few clothes. However, since June, we each one manage in one’s own way to make ends of month meet. Many of us are farmers, other fishermen. When we leave our tents for our occupations, we lose a lot of property for the lack of security and surveillance of the site. Particularly, the Congolese State has taken no steps to protect us and secure us.

… Under conversation, other people, also victims of this natural disaster, were heading towards us …, among them, there was a lady who had been indicated to me as responsible of the displaced people of this site. Suddenly, I greeted her and introduced myself at the same time.

Her (responsible of the displaced people site): Thank you and welcome to our place.

Me: You are welcome, Madam! I would like to know how much you live in this site?

Her: We are here forty households, but other victims of this disaster settle in unfinished building sites here in Kilomoni.

Me: Now that the waters of the “Nyangara” pond are gradually regaining their natural bed, are there not people among you who are going back to their homes?

Her: No, unfortunately. Because most of the flooded houses had collapsed, and to return to live there, you must have the means to start building. The majority of those who occupy tents here do not really have those means. On the other hand, those who prefer to be much safer are going to look for unfinished building sites in the quarter to settle there, because here, the more it rains the more the tarpaulins are destroyed in contact with the sunlight which shines in Uvira.

Me: What does the Congolese state say about your case?

Her: Nothing at all.

Nonviolence, Peace, Refugee Stories

Building bridges of hope, not walls of despair

By Scott Wright,
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

A Gathering of Parents and Children at the US – Mexico Border

I have just returned from the US – Mexico border, on a journey of accompaniment sponsored by Maryknoll and hosted each year by the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, Texas. I have been to the border many times, but this time in particular was especially heart-breaking and painful. There we met immigrant parents and children who had been detained and cruelly separated from each other for two months; there we witnessed their joyful but often painful reunion at a refugee shelter; there we prepared and shared a meal with them at the Columban Mission Center.

At Nazareth Hall, a former nursing home for Catholic nuns converted into a refugee shelter, I spoke with a young Honduran father who had made the journey north with his three-year old son Jose, now lying face-down on the ground, rejecting his father’s attempts to console him. A young teacher in our group who works with pre-school children on an Indian reservation tried unsuccessfully to console him. In the end, as we left the shelter, Jose gave his father a tearful hug, as his father’s eyes filled with tears.

Later that night, at the Columban Mission Center, I sat across from a Guatemalan father, who talked about how he was treated in an immigrant detention center north of El Paso. “We were treated worse than animals,” he told us. “They didn’t even call me by my name, only the number over my bed.” As he spoke, his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine sat silently next to him, only her eyes indicating she was listening attentively to every word. They had not seen each other for more than two months; both had been detained in separate immigration detention centers, with little communication between them.

Today, of the 2,500 children who were forcibly separated from their parents under the “Zero Tolerance” policy of the current administration, only 1,800 have been reunited with their detained parents, who have been released with ankle bracelets to monitor their activity as they pursue their asylum claims. Nearly 700 children remain in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and at least 400 of their parents have already been deported or have opted to depart voluntarily, often with the promise that they would be reunited with their children.

As a nation, and under successive administrations, we have failed miserably to build bridges, not walls.

A Critical Time for Bridge-Building Everywhere

Last week, more than 500 moral theologians from 80 countries around the world gathered in Sarajevo, Bosnia to reflect on the theme: “A Critical Time for Bridge-Building, Catholic Theological Ethics Today.” During the Balkan war in the early 1990s, a war in which entire Muslim villages were “ethnically cleansed” and the city of Sarajevo – once was home to Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – was besieged for three-and-a-half years by the Serbian military. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict, and entire communities that once lived peacefully together, were torn apart.

Pope Francis sent a greeting to those gathered last week and acknowledged the great symbolic importance of Sarajevo to “the journey of reconciliation and peacemaking after the horrors of a recent war that brought so much suffering to the people of that region”:

“I encourage you to be passionate for such dialogue and networking … to be faithful to the word of God which challenges us in history, and to show solidarity with the world, which you are not called to judge but rather to offer new paths, accompany journeys, bind hurts and shore up weakness.”

He noted that Sarajevo is “a city of bridges,” and called attention to “the need to build bridges, not walls,” and he highlighted the many challenges facing the world today, including the global climate crisis and its impact on the environment, the crisis of migrants and refugees, and the failure of political leaders to respond effectively to these tragic human situations.

What we witnessed last week on the US – Mexico border must be set against a global context in which millions of people are crossing borders every day, sometimes fleeing violent conflicts in their home countries, sometimes fleeing from climate disasters or extreme poverty, and more and more facing rejection rather than welcome at the borders of neighboring countries. In the past twenty years, the numbers of migrants in the world has increased 60%, reaching its current number of 257 million. Many of these migrants, 68 million this year, are forcibly displaced by violent conflict, and of those 68 million, 40 million are internally displaced, 25 million are refugees, and 3 million are asylum-seekers.

Each one of them has a story, like the Honduran father and his 3-year-old son Jose, or the Guatemalan father and his 12-year-old daughter Jasmine. Many of them, perhaps more than half, have a child’s story to tell, and a child’s tears, like Jose’s, or a child’s tears that have dried up from too much pain, like Jasmine’s.

Return to Gospel Nonviolence

What is the message at the heart of the drama of families and children separated at the US – Mexico border, and the survivors of war and ethnic cleansing a generation ago in Sarajevo? In a word, it is to remind us that we are one human family, that we have a special obligation to welcome migrants and refugees fleeing violence as we would welcome Christ in the world; and we have a special obligation to address the root causes of war and violence so that people are not forced to flee in the first place.

Sarajevo is also known as the city that set in motion the greatest war known to the world a century ago. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire that took place in Sarajevo in 1914 set the stage for the First World War, a war that convulsed the world and ended one hundred years ago this November. Sixteen million people were killed in that war, and another 20 million injured. The First World War and an imperfect peace gave way to the Second World War, a war in which 60 million were killed and many more injured, and we are still living with the consequences of our failure to live together on this planet in peace.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to visit Sarajevo with my wife, a third generation Croatian. In that brief visit, we heard stories from Bosnian Muslim survivors, and we visited the museum to commemorate the horrendous killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. We heard also the amazing story of the cellist who played his cello every day for 22 days in a market square in Sarajevo during the war, to mark the place where a Serbian mortar shell killed 22 people waiting in line for bread. It is a story of moral courage and outrage at the destruction of war, but also the power of beauty and culture to remind us of our common humanity, to invite us to build bridges to embrace our differences, not walls to divide and separate us.

Pope Francis chose to take the name “Francis” as the saint who would inspire his witness as the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. In the five years since he was elected pope, he has woven together St. Francis’ love for the poor, for creation, and for peace, and encouraged us by his example to care for our common home, and to embrace migrants and refugees as our sisters and brothers.

At the heart of this witness of justice and mercy is Pope Francis’ growing desire to affirm the vision of Gospel nonviolence at the heart of the Church’s witness for peace. That was the theme of his 2017 World Day of Peace message, following a historic gathering convened by Pax Christi International in Rome of peacemakers from nations around the world, including many that had experienced the cruelty and pain of war. They gathered to address the theme “Nonviolence and Just Peace” and to urge the Church to return to the witness of Gospel nonviolence.

In his 2017 message following the gathering, Pope Francis concluded: “When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promoters of nonviolent peacemaking … To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.”

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Pope Francis is no stranger to these places of suffering. In 2017 he visited the U.S. – Mexico border, and two years earlier, in 2015, he visited Sarajevo, where he addressed tens of thousands of people during a morning mass in the city’s stadium, acknowledging the pain and suffering of “children, women and the elderly in refugee camps,” and “countless shattered lives.” During that visit to Sarajevo, Pope Francis heard stories from survivors of the war that brought tears to his eyes:

“We see so much cruelty,” he began, and he urged those who had shared their stories with him to “always do the opposite of cruelty. Have attitudes of tenderness, of forgiveness … and be small witnesses of the cross of Jesus … Today, dear brothers and sisters, the cry of God’s people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: War never again!” he exclaimed.

What unites the U.S. – Mexico border to Sarajevo is a cry that goes up from the victims of violence and war, the cry of the migrant and refugee parents and children, the cry of the victims and survivors of war.

This week we commemorate the tragic conclusion of another war, that ended in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

As he did at the U.S. – Mexico border, and as he did in Sarajevo, Pope Francis reminds us that we share a common humanity, and we share a common home. That is both a gift, but also a responsibility: “The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing are a lasting warning to humanity … Nuclear weapons create a false sense of security, and the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is firmly to be condemned.”

We have a choice to make, and each day we are invited to choose life, to embrace peace.

At the conclusion of his World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis reminds us that “Jesus himself offers a manual for this strategy of peacemaking in the Sermon on the Mount … Blessed are the meek, Jesus tells us, the merciful and the peacemakers, those who are pure in heart, and those who hunger and thirst for justice.”

So we must continue to hope, with eyes wide open, but our hearts firmly planted in our faith. The Gospel invites us to build bridges of hope, not walls of despair.

* Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera.
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists Stories: ‘My path as a Young Peace Journalist’

The following interview was conducted to Merveille Charles Kakule Saliboko, a member of the Young Peace Journalists from Butembo, North Kivu province, DRC.  He tells us why he chose to become a Young Peace Journalist for Pax Christi Internationaland explains from his own perspective the importance of such project.

_________________________________

Interviewee Identity

Name: Merveille Charles Kakule Saliboko
Age: 26 years old
Sex: M
Hobbies: Communications, journalism, blogging writing, traveling

____________

Summary

This interview has been made to Merveille Charles Kakule Saliboko, a young peace journalist based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Merveille is also a journalist, blogger, and works in communications for certain organisations. He writes for print, online press, and radio on topics relating to peace, agriculture, the environment, and sustainable development in the African Great Lakes region since 2010. His passion is to tell the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, marginalized people, people displaced by war and waiting for the return of peace in their respective hometowns.

____________

Why did you decide to take Pax Christi International training?

In March 2016, I published an article on people fleeing the massacres of Beni, article published in the French magazine Afrique Agriculture. This article was awarded by AJVPD Tupashe Amani in collaboration with the MONUSCO public information section as part of the Amani Presse Peace Journalism Awards in North Kivu in May of the same year. The Young Peace Journalists initiative is timely, to enable me to sustain this peace journalism experience serving refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers … 

How did you hear about it?

My cousin Kennedy Wema, who is a journalist (president of Syfia International and Reporters Without Borders correspondent in the DRC), took part in a Pax Christi International activity held in late 2016 in South Africa. Knowing that I had won a peace journalism award and knowing my concern to make this world better through peace journalism, he invited me to apply by sending me the phone number by email.

Why did you choose to interview these people?

It seemed interesting to me to better understand the situation that the orphaned child victims of the Beni massacres go through on a daily basis, when they fled, how their life goes in the community that welcomes them (here the school) and how the teachers understand the behavior of these children: how do these teachers “adapt” to the victims? Are they prepared to deal with the unpredictable cases of these traumatized victims? Are these victims sufficiently integrated? These are the questions that I wanted from the start to have answers for, to better present this situation to the rest of the world.

As for the second interview (to be published soon), I also proceeded with a questioning: the decision of the Prime Minister was made, was it followed? What is the current situation of Rwandan refugees living in Congo-Brazza? Are they stateless? What was the level of their integration into the local community (they have just spent 20 years in this country, for many of them!)? Questions that allow me to identify the situation of these people, in light of the cessation clause of the refugee status put forward by Rwanda since the end of 2017 that only Congo-Brazza has decided to apply.

Is migration a hot topic in your country?

This is a subject that is on the lips especially in the province of North Kivu where I live. Tribal communities are wary of each other especially towards the Rwandophone populations. They are rightly or wrongly accused of being at the root of the conflicts in the region. Recently, there was even a petition to demand the split of North Kivu, a petition initiated by the Rwandophones (Hutu and Tutsi). The same approach was initiated in South Kivu. In both cases, the other communities spoke with one voice, and initiate a counter-petition for the territorial unit of said provinces. In an amalgam, some people even say that the killings in Beni are perpetrated by Hutu who want to go to Ituri (there were also massacres not long ago, by the same people according to these sources). Looking for land to cultivate. This situation had even hampered the free movement of people from Goma (capital of the province) to Butembo (economic lung): thus, in mid-2016, two innocent women from Goma were stoned and burnt alive in Butembo. I had denounced this situation on my Facebook account, giving the true identity of these victims, the reason for their trips (family or business): here too, the youth had become aware. Given the relative prosperity of the Butembo region, there is no feeling of emigration. It is above all the internal migrations (mentioned above) that are all the rage.

How many interviews have been conducted up to now?

For the moment, a paper has been published. It’s a compilation of five interviews created with victims of the massacres of Beni, in the Nord-Kivu province in the east of the DRC. In the second interview, we see a human rights activist from The Congo, who tells us about the situation of Rwandan refugees in this country: what they endure, in light of the recent decision of the Congolese Prime Minister Clément Mouamba, to apply the secession clause of the refugee statute (as requested by the Rwandan government). This interview will be published next 29th of June.

What has changed?

It is difficult at the present time to quantify the changes in the communities that have been affected by the publications. Still, the article on the victims of the massacres sparked a wave of solidarity in the comments in the various Facebook groups where I shared the link. More awareness was born.As for the article on Rwandan refugees living in Congo-Brazza, we are waiting for the publication to have an impact. I hope that this will be the beginning of an awareness of the situation of those people we hardly talk about, except for the rare moments when the “officials” of the United Nations (UNHCR), Rwanda and Congo decide to talk about it.

What did it bring you personally?

I got out of it a lot of things. First, a practical training on peace journalism (I parachuted in this area by winning a prize following an article published in the “agricultural” sense). I needed to be equipped to cope better with the various situations in the region in which I live: I am convinced that peace in the world begins with me. I also met other young people, peace-loving like me.

Photo: Merveille (pictured in the middle) interviewing Massai people in north-western Tanzania in 2016.