Kiziba refugee camp: life with no home

Blue school uniforms and rough wooden trolleys for hauling firewood in Kiziba refugee camp.

The thing I’ll remember the most about my two days in the Kiziba Refugee camp were the children. They were everywhere, since half of the camp’s 20,000 residents are under the age of 15.  They shouted endless “good morning!”s to me, jostled for position in front of my camera, and mostly just followed in a noisy, snot-nosed crowd.

Those young people have never known a different home. Their families fled the murder, rape, and lawlessness in the DR Congo and crossed the border to Rwanda, where they’ve lived in this camp. That started in 1996, and they’re still there.

I saw many faces like this one while walking the narrow lanes between the camp's small houses.

They want to go home.  That’s the message I heard several times, even from the young men who had never seen “home.” This was a strange idea for my Canadian team, and we asked why they didn’t just leave the camp and accept the Rwandan citizenship offered by their host country. In Canada, a nation of immigrants, your family’s traditional land is not important. But for these Congolese, it’s a crucial part of their identity. Even if they did try to make it as a Rwandan, they’d be just another poor person without land, education, job prospects, or any money to start a new life.

Instead, the camp residents are making the best of their limited situation. Some are starting businesses or working on community projects (although options are very limited). They’re also hoping to be one of the 15 families or so that are accepted each year to resettle in a foreign country. Whether hoping for a ticket to Canada or a return to a peaceful Congo, most have spent 15 years waiting. That wait likely won’t end soon.

These men are in their 60s. They were good natured enough to pose for a picture and speak a little with us in French. Many in the camp were uncomfortable having their pictures taken.

 

Was there hope in the camp? Yes, some. There were also senseless, miserable living conditions and pleas for more dictionaries and classrooms. I can't imagine myself living a lifetime in that place.

What can be done? That's a question I'm still struggling with. We can support the entrepreneurs in the camp, deliver supplies, or sponsor the brightest students to go to high school. That helps a few people, and raises the general quality of life in the camp. But what about all 20,000? The best thing for them would be peace in their homeland, and the UN's largest mission has been failing to secure that for years.

Odas is 19, and was one of our gracious hosts. He's a member of the camp's Christian youth group that has started some great projects. He was one of the camp's top students, and so earned sponsorship to finish high school.

 

I don’t have answers yet, but I have learned a lot of good questions. I’ve also gained a new appreciation for where my refugee friends in Canada came from.  They would have worshipped in church each Sunday, collected firewood for hours, and played football in their refugee community. They might have held leadership positions or had jobs. There’s a functional, but very impoverished, society inside these camps. The people my team met were the leaders who worked hard to improve their situation, and I was happy to learn about and encourage their efforts.

Processing a post-genocide Rwanda

Skyline in Kigali, Rwanda's capital city.

We arrived on schedule, minus one bag (not mine) and a delayed team member who flew seperately (not me). After wasting much plastic during five airline meals, a 3 a.m. ride to our Kigali guesthouse, and a decent sleep, we were ready. to begin.

Our hosts, International Teams missionaries Serge and Jenn Lichti, welcomed us to Rwanda’s capital. It’s a fairly quiet city of one million settled on beautiful rolling hills and valleys. The rest of the day, we learned about this country’s 1994 genocide that killed one million in just 100 days. This isn’t the main purpose of my team’s time here, but it’s crucial for understanding modern Rwandan culture; not one person here is unaffected by these attrocities.

I have heard the genocide horrors before, but standing on the land where the massacres happened is different. So is talking to people who lived through 1994.  I’ve learned how the Hutu-Tutsi “tribal” conflict was only created during European colonization, how earlier, smaller massacres preceded the most famous one, and how the hatred continues to this day outside Rwanda: anti-Tutsi violence continued in refugee camps after 1994 and the tensions still fuel chaos and violence in eastern Congo, just across the Rwandan border.

Just a few names of people killed in the 1994 genocide. This is at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, an overwhelmingly sad place.

The UN and other governments’ deliberate withdrawl and failure to act during the genocide is sad and suggests a devaluing of African lives. Equally disturbing is the church’s active participation in the murders. Most Rwandans have become Christians, and those Christians murdered their neighbours when leaders commanded it. People fled to churches, but the clergy often gave them over to be killed.

It’s easy to disassociate with that brutality, but I find myself wondering what each of us would do when refusing to kill means your own death. I have tried to put on the shoes of both victims, the attackers and the attacked.

Today, Rwanda is peaceful. The country is moving beyond its violent history, but certainly not forgetting the past. Instead of long and expensive trials and prison sentences, some Rwandans are being restored to their communities through traditional mediation called “gacaca.” Victims confront the accused with a goal of reconciliation. Offenders are reintegrated into society to begin living again with their neighbours. Difficult, but what better choice is there?  Canada and the world could learn from this example of forgiveness and restorative justice.

Thinking about the genocide, another question I struggle with is how an individual can stand up against such deep and complex causes of injustice. I’m not sure the answer yet. It’s the same question I have about refugees, and I’ll be learning more about them tomorrow when my team travels to a refugee camp.

Flowers left as tribute on a mass grave. Over 250,000 people are buried at this memorial site.

Departure Time: all packed

Everything I'll need for the next three months, and it fits on my back.

Welcome to the first post on my new blog!  I’m only hours away from arriving at Toronto’s YYZ airport, joining my five Canadian team members and beginning the journey.

I’m excited, and also wavering back and forth between thinking “wait, I’m not ready!” and “let’s get this show on the road already!”

The last few days have been lots of tough goodbyes. But as soon as that plane takes off, I expect I’ll be full of anticipation and ready to embrace new people, places, smells, and experiences.

Here’s what I’ve packed to bring with me. I’m trying to pack light for the next three months. After some deliberation, I decided not to bring a tent and sleeping bag. Kenya has many cheap camping options, but that’s a level of complication I’d rather not deal with.  A bonus late edition was my rain coat: I’m going during the peak rainy season.

Necessary items: passport, cash, vaccination certificate. iPod is a risky luxury, but I'm hoping to sometimes access email with it.

Reading material and Lonely Planet guide books that I'll try not to rely on TOO often.

Locks for my bags, notebook, camera card, headlamp, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, electrical socket converter, notebook, etc.