2012 – a difficult year for Meheba refugee camp

Now that the festive season is winding down, decorations are being packed away, people begin their latest keep fit plan and try to stick to new resolutions I find myself sat wondering what 2012 will bring for the wonderful people that I had the privilege of getting to know and fell in love with in Meheba Refugee camp this summer in Zambia.

I spent 3 gloriously hot weeks sleeping in tents, cooking local food, visiting the ‘long drop’, walking to collect water and introducing adults and children to the beauty of books, playing games, having fun and sharing tears. I was lucky enough to form close connections with a handful of people whose stories will stay in my heart and fuel my nightmares for the rest of my life.

Meheba is an established camp. This means that the refugee’s whole lives are here most of the young children that I encountered have only ever lived in Meheba. They are not victims of droughts, famine or natural disasters but instead tend to be political victims who were ‘lucky’ enough to escape their homeland. Carrying their children on their back, trekking across mountains and wading through rivers until they found the safety that Zambia offers.

The refugees come from a variety of countries: DR Congo, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Burundi, 2 from Tanzania and 1 from Zimbabwe. When they arrive at the camp the UNHCR http://www.unhcr.org.uk/ provide them with the materials and a time frame to build their own house. Until that house is built they are given a sizeable tent to live in. They are also given crops and tools to grow their own food. Any food that they do not eat themselves can be traded for additional items-wheel barrows, bikes, wooden posts…potatoes and carrots are the currency of this happy land.

The first words that I uttered as we entered the camp were ‘but where does everyone live?’ It is huge, there is a lake, 7 schools, one high school and 1 free medical centre and even a market. It sounds luxurious…to be honest it is when I compare what I lived in to the pictures of emergency refugee camps that are erected over night for famine relief.

However, it is not quite Buckingham Palace and its biggest downfall is its size. The camp is sectioned into 8 zones A-G. It takes almost three hours to walk from one end to the other. A 6-hour round trip if you live in zone G and want to go to zone A.

Of course the medical centre and high school are in zone A so that local Zambians can also use these facilities. That means if somebody in Zone G or F needs medical attention they need to leave aside 6 hours of their precious time to seek it…time that they would usually use to plough the field, bake bread, and tend to their crops…they will never ever seek it. Instead they go to their local witch who we interacted with closely for a period of 4 days but that is a story for another time!

It also means that local Zambians and not the refugees use the expensive high school, which costs 1.5 million Kwacha to attend. They don’t accept their potatoes or carrots.

This infuriated me beyond belief and we had many heated discussions with the UNHCR. Surely these facilities are for the refugees, they should be centralised and accessible to all….’but the world doesn’t work that way madam. There are strict laws that we must follow.’


My baby friend and I

The one decision that I simply could not accept, but unfortunately had no power to effect even the slightest change was to do with the plans for the repatriation of the Rwandans. Deeming that their country is now settled for them to return the UNHCR moved out 200 people as a test and gave them free transportation back to Rwanda (how anyone’s life can be used as a test is beyond me). Of course these people have not been heard from since, why would they when they were chased out for marrying the wrong person, saying the wrong thing or looking at the wrong person. These people are still wanted!

The UNHCR still plan to send the rest of the Rwandans – around 1000 adults and children back to Rwanda in December 2012. The Rwandans are beside themselves. If the decision is not changed then they have decided that they will go through with a mass suicide. They told us that ‘they would rather take our own lives, our own children’s lives then go back to torture and hate’. Thinking about these beautiful people looking into our eyes and telling us their story- their eyes full of fear and ours full of tears still leaves me somewhat emotional today.

The dancing lady.

The UNHCR must have the most difficult job in the world. Of course they don’t want to send these people back but with Zambians discovering gold and diamonds in the refugee camp soil I fear that a new mine will strip away the hopes and maybe even lives of yet more innocent people.

All my Christmas and New Years wishes go out to these beautiful people. I hope that decisions are changed, sense is seen and battles are won. In the words of Justin (a 10 year old Congolese boy) as long as everyone ‘says their prayers and stays cool like a banana…Hakuna Matata.’

The ever so clever Justin


74 thoughts on “2012 – a difficult year for Meheba refugee camp

  1. Thanks very very much .. I really love your writing .. keep up 🙂

    ( as long as everyone ‘says their prayers and stays cool like a banana…Hakuna Matata.’ )

    like it ^^”

  2. This is a lovely piece. Maybe we should all think about others for a change instead of ourselves…. Thanks for giving me a glimpse into the lives of others.

  3. How did you get the opportunity to go there?

    It’s so difficult when things are political as so much has to change for people to live a good standard of life and even when helping, there are so many things, laws and feet you have to becareful not to tread on incase you should jepodise the help you are trying to give.

    Doesn’t the law say they are able to stay there if their lives are in danger? Because surely they understand that they are still in so much danger.

    Fantastic post!

    • I went with a fantastic charity called the Book Bus and will be posting more about the charity very soon.

      Rwanda is now a ‘settled’ country according to the UNHCR and as such Zambia have no legal responsibility to provide a safe place anymore. As far as I can see they do not deal with individual cases. The UNHCR try their best but when up against one of the poorest countries in the world goverments who think they can generate money through gold and diamonds its a tough battle. Sadly, it will be a Canadian, Chinese or Japanese company that own the mine- they will build Zambia and the camp a new road and a football stadium and Zambia will see little of the money.

      • Is there not anything that can be done? I know this is very difficult but usually petitions and letters from many people can catch more attention to the issue.

      • My name is James Griffith and I work with the Red Cross in Colorado Springs, CO. Today I had a mother living in the US call to ask me about medical treatment for her daughter living in the Meheba Refugee Resettlement Camp. The daughter has meningitis and needs care. Do you have a point of contact at the camp clinic?

  4. This certainly does put things in perspective, doesn’t it? Suddenly, my stress from multiple freelance-writing deadlines, doctor appointments for the kids and the shopping trip I need to take because there’s no wine in the house? Seems a bit less stressful…

    Thank you for this,


  5. Beautifully written post and a very powerful story. My heart and best wishes go out to all of them. Thanks for sharing your experience, looking forward to reading more on your blog. Congrats on being freshly pressed too.

  6. Love your insight and righteous anger! Exposure is one of the best ways to exact change and you blog is a great tool. I believe everyone should go on a trip into Africa’s developing countries to be exposed to and experience first hand those things we read about. It is much harder to ignore when one has a personal experience. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Quiet an experience you narrated there. You couldn’t have chosen a better to go through that humbling experience. Refugee is a growing problem and not limited to one region now. It’s easy for us to express some sympathy and donate some for the cause, but can’t really understand the feeling they are going through unless you undergo the ordeal yourself. Without knowing further details I wouldn’t blame Zambian govt. at least I would admire the fact that they have opened up their doors to accept refugees. Of course there’s some gain for them too. Are any of these refuges are given chance to immigrate to other countries under refugee quota, I know some countries have special provisions for that. US do. Repatriation against the wish of refugee is bit harsh especially when they have spent most of their lives in the land they are living in. Are educated refugees offered employment in Zambia and an opportunity to stay behind? The foreign companies interested in mining will definitely need local labor anyways.

  8. Great text, congratulations!
    And such an emotional story, this should be told to the world, but I’m afraid Rwanda’s situation is just well known as it is ignored…
    But we won’t!
    So I’ll share your comments to as many people as possible, and congratulations for your willness to write about it!
    Hugs from Brazil!

  9. Its really a beautiful post and only someone who has been one among them can understand the pain. You have written it, filled with emotions may be that’s why it touched me.. I pray the same for them my best wishes to them..

  10. Great post, and you do a great job of addressing the many facets and complexities of the refugee camp. The school issue in particular hits home, because if the children in the camps have no access to education, they’ll just live in the same situation their entire life and perpetuate UNHCR’s problems. Has anyone from the camps had success moving outside the camp and making a living? As for the mass suicide, let’s just hope not… Thanks for giving these people a voice!

  11. Good for you, not “sitting back & doing nothing.” The situation there is so dire but sadly, as time proves out, much of the world turns away from Africa. I really admire those that do not, those that pay attention, allow it to sink in rather than tune out, and then act. I saw many of the things you describe here in Haiti just after the quake – the living in tents in sweltering heat with nowhere to go, homes destroyed, families decimated, an uncaring government. I cried myself to sleep each night there. And I saw it again in Madagascar during the coup. My heart bleeds for them all…

  12. The worst feeling is feeling helpless, and my current circumstances don’t allow me to do a lot. But then again, the little I can do here is a lot to someone, and perhaps one day my circumstances will open up. You are doing what you can do too, and that is wonderful.

    People always say there is nothing they can do about things, but doing something is better than doing nothing.

    I firmly believe God will put things right (I don’t need agreement or disagreement from anyone, I’m not looking for validation or dialogue on this point, just stating). In the meantime, if everyone would do a little, a whole lot would be accomplished the world over.

    Thanks for this post, and thanks for making the world a better place.

  13. yea! someone actually doing something for others out there and talking about realities for other people that do not have the privileges we do. i just returned from Ecuador with very similar experiences of poverty and joy and love and humanity in those who have to do without. Going to another country, particularly one that does not enjoy the benefits we do, I think should be a requirement for americans. Thank you for the post.

  14. “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

    U did great efforts by helping those people. They will never forget u and u will never forget them.

  15. Wow. Talk about putting 2011 in perspective. That camp sounds like an incredible experience, and one that will really make people appreciate all that they have. Here in New York City, it certainly puts any complaining I have been doing about mass transit recently into a different light, as I certainly don’t have a six hour roundtrip like you were speaking of between Zones A & G. Thanks so much for sharing this, and helping me to appreciate life.

  16. Your story brought warmth to my heart and tears to my eyes at the same time. The fact that these people don’t actually have a fair access (or even barely) to the basic necessities of life sounds really disheartening. And yes, their land being exploited sooner or later is yet another fear that might embrace these wonderful people. My prayers to these refugees and thanks to someone like you who helps out.

  17. Hai, it’s a verry nice info about another country. 🙂
    Thank you, i love this post v’much.

    “The UNHCR still plan to send the rest of the Rwandans – around 1000 adults and children back to Rwanda in December 2012”.
    I just want to ask.. Do you know, the why the UNHCR do that thing?
    Thank you.

  18. Thank you so much. I have an idea on something thats useless Im sorry to say on the immediate sitution. Im just an ordinary and typically flawed man, but Im going to to start a discussion with anyone, everyone I can on this and how we can help in the future. Thats what I, can try to do.
    Thanks again for restoring a little more of my faith in mankind in your actions

  19. Enter humanity and we’ll discover things that will make us stop complaining about our inconveniences. Like your story and wish you and the Meheba camp prosperity (it’s also almost Chinese New Year, what a coincidence with the prosperity stuff ).

  20. Hakuna Matata..!!! Could you offer me some type of information as to how I could possibly sponsor Justin….or assist financially so that he can at least attend the private school, the one that doesn’t accept carrots or potatoes for tuition…*.Note: I must comment on the dancing lady in green skirt……It is the attitude that creates perseverance. Thank you sincerely for posting and hopefully, for responding!!

  21. You never realize how blessed you are until you hear of stories like these. Thanks for sharing this information. I feel situations like these will be corrected one day – by a power bigger than all of us. In the mean time, it’s good to do what we can, in whatever way we can. Great job.

  22. Hej from Sweden,

    As a woman of color, my heart goes out to all the displaced people of the world, many of whom are black. Your description of this refugee camp almost sounds idyllic, although, as we all know that is far from the truth. But if a woman can walk a distance to get fire wood or water and return to her family unharmed, then it is as near to idyllic a refugee camp as can be.
    The rules and regulations set by UNHCR seem to be as absurd as the very need for refugee camps. I can not understand why they are sending back Rwandans to a place where it is sure that their very life is at risk! My heart goes out to these people as well as everyone else in this camp. This is not the life any of them have chosen to live, but in the end, at least these people can live peacefully with as much family as they may have left and not fear every day for their lives, as they once did.

    Thank you very much for sharing this with us . l of course was not there, I did not look into the eyes of fear as you have done, but please know that these stories will live on in my heart and soul for a very long time to come.

    I wish you and all of the people of Meheba, a year of fresh starts and new beginnings.

    HAPPY NEW YEAR / Gott Nytt År

  23. Beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing. I’m glad you are doing something about one of our worldwide situations. You have my utmost admiration. Again, thank you and Happy New Year!

  24. I hope the United Nations will create a overall plan or strategy to help Zambia and all other African countries suffering in this manner.

  25. lovely writeup. thank you for sharing. glad to see some thoughtful people helping out those in need. happy new year! 🙂


  26. Thank you for highlighting – not just this situation but the reminder of the many refugees worldwide. The repatriation issue is infuriating. I work with many refugees and my daughter just finished a masters degree in refugee/migration studies at the American University of Cairo. Many are unaware of the many issues involved in resettlement and the tremendously difficult journey. To think of sending so many Rwandans back is unconscionable.

  27. I was immersed through this post, My heart stopped for few seconds when I came across the word mass suicide.
    some people in the world think of others.
    Only a few worry for them. But one like you give peace and happiness for the need.
    Long live your service along with you….

  28. Wow! Well, thank you for going there and doing something. That takes a lot of guts and a lot of love for all people.

    I have read a lot about different refugee camps and this one sounds like one of the nicest. General problems that refugee camps have include the long trek to water you mentioned and also rape, violence, starvation, disease, theft and apathy. Refugees who live in camps often face ridicule and discrimination from their host country. They live out their lives with no concrete identity except as victims. Sometimes it seems they escape death by violence to die of disease, starvation or violence by the hand of their own who are stressed to the point of stealing and murdering to survive.

    I’d like more spending on refugees, victims of famine and peaceful negotiations than all the wars against drugs, over oil or terrorism.

  29. Omg this is so sad 😦
    My heart goes out to these people. It is just so wrong and unfair that some people in this world have to go through these kinds of injustices when they never did anything to deserve it >(

  30. Pingback: Tuesday 10: 10 favourite holiday snaps. (Africa Edition.) | bluntsbookblog

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