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.’
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 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.’